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Leading Off
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Photo of Martin Luther King Jr.
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” Martin Luther King Jr. told an audience in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1957. As the world celebrates King’s birthday today and the United States inaugurates Joe Biden as its 46th president this week, we gather together all-star bosses of many stripes: past US presidents, a leading CEO, a Navy admiral, and a top foreign-policy expert to broaden your thinking on behalf of those you lead.
Be the best boss you can be
When it comes to employee happiness, bosses and supervisors play a bigger role than one might guess. Our research shows that businesses looking to make an external social contribution should, perhaps paradoxically, look inside: improving your employees’ job satisfaction could be the single most important thing you do.
“Leadership is a privilege. If you want to lead you have to be willing to serve.”
So says Ken Chenault, chairman and managing director of venture firm General Catalyst and former CEO of American Express. The leader’s role, he likes to say, is to “define reality and give hope” by displaying transparency and courage to give people reasons to be hopeful. As automation widens the racial wealth gap and the pandemic disproportionately hurts women, McKinsey research shows how hope takes the form of interventions that can help.
The number of years that the United States has been “the architect and general contractor of the world,” says Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. But as business leaders and a new administration in Washington, DC, face a changed postpandemic landscape, global issues will demand more international cooperation in a highly complex, increasingly transparent environment. In this interview, Haass explains how you can lead in a world of greater, not less, geopolitical turbulence.
Five questions for: Lillian Cunningham
Five questions for: Lillian Cunningham
“The US presidency is a rare and uniquely valuable data set on leadership,” says Lillian Cunningham, the Emmy Award-winning host of the Washington Post’s Presidential podcast. “How many examples do we have where we can study the same executive office, with largely the same mission and the same constraints, for 232 years?” In this discussion, Cunningham—a McKinsey alumna and the Post’s former leadership editor, parses the central role that adversity and empathy play in understanding the leadership lessons of the 44—soon to be 45—men who’ve occupied the Oval Office.
Leading Off: Are there universal lessons to draw from such a unique role?
Lillian Cunningham: The presidency tests probably more leadership skills than any position could, but there’s something for everyone to learn from it. For example, you might not need to deal with national-security risks. But what about dealing with the public or getting people and teams on your side to work toward your vision? There’s plenty for any leader, public or private sector, to gain from studying the presidency.
Leading Off: What specific lessons come to mind?
Lillian Cunningham: I think of three. The first is that popularity and greatness are not the same thing. Leaders need to think about their timeline for success, because there’s often a trade-off between doing the thing that’s best for the long term or scoring short-term points. Abraham Lincoln was not particularly popular while in office, but of course, over the decades he consistently ranks as the greatest American president. Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, on the other hand, went to great lengths to avoid their contemporaries’ criticism and appease stakeholders at the expense of difficult choices that the future would judge them for. You can’t be a transformative leader unless you’re willing to see beyond your moment, beyond yourself.
Second is that the presidents we think of as iconic leaders are usually great students. Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Woodrow Wilson were all history majors and students of the presidency. It doesn’t guarantee the best decisions, but it helped them think about their own actions across a long arc, and emboldened them to make choices with an eye to what history would remember.
Third, those who make it to the White House tend to be masters of the particular media of their time. One of my favorite presidential factoids was that Thomas Jefferson hated public speaking; he just wasn’t good at it. But he was a terrific writer, and in his time that was the more influential way to communicate with people and articulate your views. Communication skills alone don’t make for great leadership, but they are a necessary part of getting into a position to lead and connect your vision with people.
Leading Off: What do the formative years of presidents tell us about their growth as leaders?
Lillian Cunningham: Before I ticked through the presidents in chronological order, I never would have guessed that adversity was such a central part of so many of their stories, often as early as childhood. A number taught themselves to read, or had someone outside of a school environment teach them to read, sometimes as late as their teens. It was learning through lived experience and street smarts. You also wouldn’t believe how many presidents lost at least one parent in the first years of their lives. Andrew Johnson and Millard Fillmore were basically indentured servants, given away by their families in exchange for money. Andrew Jackson, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Gerald Ford were among those who from very early ages faced tough stories and personal challenges.
For many, that adversity produced people with very strong wills, and perhaps a certain drive to escape their circumstances or to prove that they were better and bigger than the life thrust upon them. Some discovered a depth of emotion and experience that prematurely aged and wizened them and helped to build great empathy and an ability to connect with people. For others—Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson come to mind—it translated into some less than great attributes as well, such as a personal sense of anger, resentment, and injustice that got in the way of their ability to be unifying leaders.
Leading Off: Can you say more about empathy?
Lillian Cunningham: Empathy emerged for me as the single most important leadership trait in the presidency. The first time I started thinking consciously about that was during the episode on Lincoln, when biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin talked with me about Lincoln’s empathy. Even from a young age, he showed both care for other people and an intuitive understanding of the world around him.
It’s important to note that empathy isn’t just about showing concern for other people and commiserating with their plight. It’s also about understanding other people’s interests and what motivates them; it’s about having an ability to imagine things through a different set of eyes. The way it plays out with presidential leadership is that empathy is also strategically effective. It’s part of problem solving, and being able to shift perspective, and knowing how to persuade the people and the Congress to go along with the president’s vision. That’s all part of being empathetic. It’s much more than a mushy, heartwarming skill; it is part of a leader’s crucial ability to survey the landscape.
Leading Off: Any final thoughts?
Lillian Cunningham: The framers of the Constitution spent a lot of time thinking about word choice, and it’s not a coincidence that they described the nation’s ultimate goal as “to form a more perfect union.” They specifically settled on the word “union” because since the beginning, success in the American experiment was about binding together all the nation’s disparate and conflicting parts. Division and debate have always been a part of the country’s DNA. The concept and practice of empathy has always been the glue. From time to time, surveys of historians and presidential experts rank presidents from best to worst. Always at the top is Lincoln, who had an ability to bind the country. And always at the bottom is James Buchanan, who was president as the Union fell apart.
Ahoy matey
illustration of paper cranes
Military leaders understand better than anyone the need for patience, wisdom, and maintaining energy in crisis. In this discussion with McKinsey experts, retired four-star US admiral and former chief of naval operations John Richardson explores a leader’s value and vulnerabilities in nurturing the kind of self-reinforcing dynamic that binds groups together during dangerous, uncertain times. Also, learn the difference between piloting a diesel-powered submarine and a nuclear one.
Lead well.
— Edited by Bill Javetski, an executive editor in the New Jersey office
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