What is the essence of leadership? When you look around and count the leaders not only in your sphere–your colleagues and coworkers, bosses and supervisors–but also the leaders that are remembered by history, such as Lincoln, FDR, Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Eisenhower–what is their defining quality? What is the common denominator? What characteristic do they all share?
To me, it’s not about their charisma or their ability to give a great speech. In fact, some great leaders are terrible speechmakers and, let’s face it, lack charisma. But what they did–and what great leaders do today–is that they execute. They are able to make things happen and drive for results. They are agenda movers. Great leaders are able to drive their ideas through the organization. It makes no difference if the organization employs 50 people or 5000 or if the organization is a government or the Allied powers. The test, the measurement of leadership is the same: It’s about getting things done.
To execute, every leader needs to have political competence. Let’s go back to our example of Martin Luther King for a moment. When asked to describe his leadership skills, many people will say that it came down to his “vision.” That said, Dr. King’s vision was the same one that his ancestors had. The difference was that Dr. King had the leadership capacity and political tenacity to change vision into reality.
All the leaders on my list–and your list–share this quality. We remember leaders not for their wit or charm, but for their accomplishments. We remember them because they had the political competence to execute. I would argue that having the political competence to execute is the essential leadership quality.
Let’s dissect political competence. There are four things that great leaders do when successfully executing their ideas:
1. They anticipate where others are coming from. Before open their mouth and sharing their ideas, great leaders have considered the position of the other party or parties. Will they be resistant? Can that resistance be tempered? Is it better to meet that resistance head-on, or does it need to be diffused before moving too far ahead?
2. They mobilize coalitions. Every leader knows that they can’t execute by themselves. They need a team behind them, or supporters, or the goodwill of likeminded individuals. No leader has pushed an idea over the finish line on his or her own strength. There are always others on their side, cheering them on or giving support where they can.
3. They negotiate the buy-in for their ideas. Very rarely does the original idea match the idea that is ultimately executed. There is always a bit of give-and-take along the way. Great leaders not only convince others to join them, but they give others a reason for joining them, and sometimes that means modifying their ideas to satisfy the concerns of others.
4. They sustain momentum. A mistake that leaders sometimes make is once an idea gets off the ground, they move on to other things. What usually happens is that the idea that once showed great promise limps along, and sometimes doesn’t make it over the finish line. Great leaders maintain interest in their ideas and continue to excite others.
Thomas Edison, a leader in his own right, and in many ways the founder of the technological era, once said, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” And I would add that we are all hallucinating if we don’t recognize the role that political competence plays in execution.
By Samuel Bacharach, McKelvey-Grant Professor, Cornell University
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