In his most recent book, 1776, two-time Pulitzer Prize–¿winning historian David McCullough examines George Washington’s leadership during the critical first year of American independence. CIO spoke with McCullough just prior to last month’s CIO Leadership Conference. (To hear the full interview, visit www.cio.com/podcasts/leadership.html.)
CIO: Leadership today has become an academic discipline. What would 18th-century leaders have thought of that?
David McCullough: I think they’d be all for it but I think they’d wonder why we need special courses when so much of their education was focused on leadership. The importance of certain basic virtues in leadership were taught in the schools: honesty, punctuality, hard work, attention to the leader. So much of what we promote in the popular culture is discovering the self, freeing the self, nurturing the self—not exactly qualities that have much to do with leadership.
What were Washington’s leadership virtues?
Being a good listener. And he knew how to handle failure. He almost always learned from his mistakes. If you’re ¿taking a look at someone, trying to judge their capacity for leadership, take a look at how they handle failure. Coolness, calmness under pressure—or at least the appearance of that—is essential.
Does leadership have an element of ¿performance to it?
Being a bit of an actor is tremendously useful in a leader. Ronald Reagan, for example, was not the first actor to be president of the U.S.; he was the first professional actor. John Adams called Washington the greatest actor of his day. And he didn’t mean that in a pejorative way. He meant that a leader has to perform the role of a leader. You have to look the part.
Do our leaders today look the part?
Leaders are not all alike. Some have certain strengths but lack others. Harry Truman had good common sense but not the ability to move people with words the way his predecessor Franklin Roosevelt did. A man like Jack Welch, it seems, knows very well what it means to be a leader. And it’s always advantageous if a leader is perceived as lucky.
How can one be perceived as lucky?
One way is if you’re cheerful and optimistic. “Life’s going good. Everything’s fine, fellows, let’s keep it up.” Reagan had that. Everyone just thought he was lucky. Some people ask if you can teach leadership. Absolutely. The military, I think, does a wonderful job.
Absent a military background, where does one get a leadership model today?
One way people have acquired a sense of what a leader is is through the culture. How leaders are portrayed on stage, in novels, in poetry. The ideal becomes clarified by the culture.
But we have a culture that tends to ¿celebrate the antihero.
Absolutely. You’ve gone from John Wayne to Dustin Hoffman in The Grad¿uate. A huge shift, and that’s part of the problem. But if schools could teach kids to express themselves clearly, on paper and on their feet, that would be a great step forward in teaching leadership.
Can you distill a few critical leadership qualities?
Courage. And that includes the courage of your convictions. Honesty. What good is it if you can’t be believed? Energy. You can’t be in second gear all the time and be much of a leader. And intelligence. You have to be intelligent.