Leadership Advice from Grade School

I once had a toy when I was a child that let me and my friends mix and match body parts and facial features to build unique profiles: add a hat, take away the nose, change the color of the eyes and the youngster has a new play friend.

Likewise, with the proliferation of editing software, almost every amateur photographer can now enhance snapshots to soften a bad expression, “Photoshop out” unwanted wrinkles and sharpen any perceived physical ambiguity. So, here is my modest proposal: How about using those same techniques to create an ideal leader?

Physical stature: The scholarly literature says height is good. Abe Lincoln had the inches but was considered a bit too lanky. The physique of basketball-great Michael Jordan exudes confidence and commands respect. Or, perhaps it is best to start with people who have overcome being height challenged. Two of New York’s favorite mayors come to mind: Fiorello LaGuardia and Abraham Beame. The pundits tell us that modest stature signals modest political power. But who is bold enough to tell that to Nicolas Sarkozy or Vladimir Putin?

Voice: Something that resonates with passion and an ounce of drama. Katharine Hepburn’s tones were distinctive but did not carry gravitas. Theodore Roosevelt’s voice was said to be high and tinny. Winston Churchill might not have sung opera, but his words, not his voice, had staying power.

A well-integrated mind: America’s Thomas Jefferson. In 1962, at a White House dinner for Nobel laureates, President John F. Kennedy said that the evening was, “... probably the greatest concentration of talent and genius in this house except for perhaps those times when Thomas Jefferson ate alone.” To be able to make complex decisions, it is important to understand the nuances of many fields of study. Today’s corporations and institutions of higher education work in global playgrounds that call for subtlety of judgment, openness to diverse approaches to the tasks at hand and an understanding of political forces that come from many corners of the world.

Strategic skills: Politically savvy leaders often get things accomplished with the ultimate assistance of those who were not their natural allies. Study the relationship between former President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt and former Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel.

Interpersonal skills: “Hi, how ya doin’?” asked New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, scion of one of the world’s wealthiest families, as he slapped his constituents on the back, sat with them eating Nathan’s Coney Island hot dogs and held babies in his arms. Being approachable, caring about others and, most importantly, acting ethically are critical skills in leadership, no matter the circumstances into which you were born.

But there is more. Mathematical whiz kids migrate around the world from one industry to another, working on problems of probability in order to make companies more efficient. They analyze, probe, ask “What if?” and, with the aid of technological tools, work through complex issues faster than the human mind can process on its own. This band of problem solvers now resides on Wall Street and is being credited, in part, for the country’s (and the world’s) economic downturn. What if the guys who invented derivatives pricing had kept the secret to themselves? Not every invention has to be used.

In the garment and fashion industries, the phrase “shrink the marker” is used to describe scrimping on the margins. At one time, a men’s size U.S. 38 regular suit needed three yards of cloth to give the jacket sufficient drape. But, if the seam allowance was reduced from one inch to one-third of an inch; if the sleeves had only one inch of turnup instead of two inches; if the span between the shoulders were tightened up a bit, and if you multiplied those changes by the thousands of suits cut from bolts of cloth each season, the savings to the manufacturer would be significant. But, allow me to ask, does the same benefit hold for the customer?

When I was in grade school, in the era of gender-specific instruction, I took a class, along with all the other boys, called “shop,” where I learned how to use woodworking tools that were supposed to help me when I grew up. In my shop class, our instructor asked us to build a small bookstand. “Measure twice, cut once,” he said. I worked hard at my assignment, sawing the wooden pieces, nailing the shelves in place and shellacking the outside. Even with my concentrated efforts, I produced a piece of furniture that wobbled: one leg was longer than the others. When I picked it up from the workbench to put it aside to allow the shellac to dry, the sides collapsed and I was left with a pile of wooden boards. “Look, it broke,” I said to my teacher. He looked back and said, “It didn’t break; you broke it,” providing me with a tough love lesson in personal accountability. Owning up to one’s actions is a key responsibility of leadership.

Some people say that nice guys finish last and that you have to walk the line between pushing the envelope — striving hard to succeed — and losing one’s competitive edge. I dissent. Be nice. Modesty is not a character flaw.

The slogan on the T-shirt reads, “If you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes.” But as most leaders quickly discover, without a team behind the lead dog, the momentum is not there to urge the sled forward. Set the goal, hitch up the team and take the sled over the hills, uphill and down. The journey is rarely easy, often it is unmarked, but the satisfaction of reaching the finish line is well worth whatever travail is met on the way.

Leadership is hard, demanding, stimulating and complex, calling for dedication, perseverance and inspiration. You need flexibility without wavering; zeal without fatigue and creativity within boundaries. Leaders execute dreams with a methodology for success: they aspire and are inspiring.

Go forth, be strong.

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Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president emeritus and university professor of public service at the George Washington