What we know about leadership can help us recognize effective or ineffective leadership and also help us understand what to expect from leadership when we need it.  Let’s turn to a few tentative conclusions about leadership effectiveness, using a widely recognized historical example: the man who is consistently rated by historians and the general public as the greatest presidential leader in American history: Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, of course, is also the source of the phrase “the better angels of our nature,” which shows up in the title of this curriculum. Before we get started, it’s useful to point out that “effectiveness” itself should be distinguished from “efficiency.” We will have more to say about this difference later on, but for now the essential difference is that efficiency is about doing things the right way with the lowest possible cost, which effectiveness is about doing the right thing in the first place. Efficiency is largely about money and resources; effectiveness is largely about ultimate impacts on people. Efficiency is what managers focus on; effectiveness is what leaders aim for.

Our first conclusion is that far-reaching leadership is always a response to crisis and conflict.  The greater the crisis or conflict, the greater the need for leadership.  In fact, where a group or community faces no unfamiliar problems and can rely on habits, laws, or customs, no real leadership is even necessary. Under such conditions, people who make a big fuss about getting other people to follow their orders come across as cranks or nuisances, not so much as leaders.

If Lincoln had lived during quieter times, he would not have had the same opportunities to lead, and we certainly wouldn't consider him our greatest president. In fact, he might not even have bothered to get involved in politics at all. Lincoln, of course, presided over the gravest moral crisis in our history — the US Civil War to end slavery.

For Abraham Lincoln, the conflict was internal and personal, since he was not only against the evil of slavery but also against the evil of civil war. In the final analysis, however, he recognized the necessity of war to end the greater evil of slavery.


Our second conclusion may sound like a contradiction to the first. While it is true that leadership arises out of crisis and conflict, it's also true that leadership generates consensus or agreement within the group.  By clarifying goals and purposes, leaders force followers to make decisions and commitments to certain kinds of action. Lincoln's election brought the issue of human slavery to a focus so it could not be avoided.  Northerners and southerners alike finally agreed that the critical issues had to be resolved even at the cost of death and destruction.


Our third conclusion is that effective leadership focuses on real tangible results for the good of the group. If leadership does not result in achievement of group goals, we can't call it effective. We recognize Abraham Lincoln as a great leader because the nation as a whole moved forward under his leadership, not because he personally amassed great wealth or power. In fact, Lincoln paid the ultimate price of death for his leadership, which has been the tragically ironic fate of some of history’s most important leaders, including Socrates, Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Our fourth conclusion is that effective leadership keeps hope alive. One of the most important and sometimes difficult roles of leadership is to motivate group members by dramatizing the possibility of achieving important goals against steep odds.

Even when they are personally discouraged themselves, and regardless of the pressures they may feel in their own lives, leaders must project images of confidence and trust in order not to discourage or even panic group members.  That doesn't mean that leaders should lie to followers or ignore real dangers. But it does mean that courage in the face of uncertainty and optimism in the face of adversity are two of the most valuable qualities of effective leaders. In his words and deeds, Lincoln inspired trust and kept hope alive even through the bleakest times. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, another US president rated near the top of the list, gave words to this idea shortly after his first inauguration when he declared that “All we have to fear is fear itself.”              

Trust is also at the heart of our fifth conclusion — that effective leadership always springs from commitment to basic moral values.  We can't function at all in groups and communities if we don't have some basic agreement to respect the value of human life, to be honest in our communication, and to be charitable or at least fair in our social exchanges.

If followers can't trust leaders to be competent in their task behavior and committed to basic moral values within the group, they won't follow for very long. It's no wonder that the mythology surrounding our greatest presidents and other leaders focuses so much on their honesty. 

We call Lincoln "Honest Abe," and we recite tales about little George Washington chopping down his father's cherry tree and confessing with the worlds "I cannot tell a lie." Washington never really did that, but we like to believe he did precisely because we value honesty in our leaders so much. It’s worth noting that the only president who has ever resigned from office did so not because his competence was in question but because his honesty was suspect. One of the most dangerous trends in recent presidential politics has been the willingness to accept and even spread lie after lie with no apparent regard for evidence or repercussions.

Lincoln, in fact, believed that slavery was not only harmful to slaves but also to slave owners, since it inevitably distorted their moral sense and warped their whole outlook on life. In our time, dishonesty not only warps our understanding of reality, it also warps our ability to understand reality.             

Our sixth conclusion is that effective leadership transforms the group and its members through learning.  Since people are normally goal oriented by nature, they tend to move on to solve new problems every time they solve an old one.  The greatest leaders tend to learn and grow from their experience and to emphasize the role of teacher in their leadership behavior.  They also tend to be problem-seekers as well as problem-solvers, constantly looking for new ways to improve their own lives and the lives of their followers. After the Civil War, the nation's commitment to freedom and equality expanded, and our collective behavior was transformed as a result.


Our seventh and final conclusion is that leadership provides no final victories.  Unfortunately, just about every time we solve one social problem, we create a bundle of new problems as a consequence.  That may sound like a discouraging conclusion, but it's one of the most useful to remember. 

Lincoln may have helped the nation solve its most baffling problems, but he left behind a baffling array of new problems. And in the wake of his assassination, the nation’s journey to greater justice and equality was sidetracked and throttled for generations. We might even consider the whole history of our nation partly as a series of attempts to expand the idea of democracy. 

It began in the American Revolution, took a giant step forward with the abolition of slavery, and has been growing ever since as previously excluded groups developed their own leadership and followership in pursuit of freedom, equality, and justice.              

It's helpful to point out that everything we know about leadership comes from study of the past.  Nothing will guarantee effective leadership in the future.  Since leadership always involves unfamiliar problems that have not been solved before, nobody can ever have a sure-fire heat-and-serve recipe for effectiveness in a leadership role.


Effective leadership requires a broad vision of the world, a clear vision of important goals, strong commitment to achievement of those goals, a genuine concern for group members, and a healthy portion of courage.


So if you see yourself as a potential leader, make sure you know what's important to you and what you are willing to work long and hard to achieve.  And don't be afraid to speak up and stick your neck out if you think others should share your goals and values. They may not always agree with you, but at least you'll help them clarify their own goals and values.


The challenge of understanding the world around us is a challenge of general broad-based education. Formal education and advanced degrees, however, do not necessarily make for long-term effectiveness in leadership roles. For the sake of leadership effectiveness, the need is to keep learning long after school is out. For learning's sake, try to keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut, except to ask questions, as much as possible.

Read as much as possible on a variety of subjects, including history and biographies of potential role models. Travel to other cultures and try to see things through other people's eyes. Look for the humor in every situation, since humor is the lubricant of creative thought. Give your body, your mind, and your imagination good nutrition and plenty of exercise – they all work better when you do. And make a habit of reflecting on your own experience in leadership roles, both the successes and the failures. What leaders really need to know is pretty much the same as what any effective, productive human being needs to know.

The best leaders are less concerned about their own power, prestige, and wealth than about the achievement of group goals and the welfare of the people whose lives they influence.