Leadership Part 1: What is the Formula for a Good Leader?

Election year is always a good time to ponder the kind of leader that is most suited for any position, whether it be the current senate elections, the presidency, or even a CEO. With  72% Leadershipof responses about the federal government negative (according to the September 20-21st, 2010 USA Today/Gallup poll), the public appears divided, with many feeling that government is too big and involved (58%), while others believe it should have a more comprehensive role (almost 6 in 10 people believe that government should make sure that all Americans have adequate health care). With so many diverse and conflicting values, three qualities should be universal to any leader: wisdom, benevolence and integrity. America and the world still struggles to produce leaders with all of them, if the polls are any indication.

Let’s start with wisdom: Being smart is clearly not enough. Witty Time columnist Joel Stein was not incorrect when he wrote about the upside of elitism in his article: “I went to a better college than you did. That does not make me a better person than you. It does, however, make me smarter, more knowledgeable, more curious and more ambitious. So, in a lot of ways, better.” However, for positions of leadership and power, it is utterly inadequate. How many of our political representatives have gone to elite academic schools? Probably most of them, but how many have used their good judgement or experience to galvanize their constituents towards progress? President Obama, clearly an intelligent man, has so far shown his lack of experience and good judgement in corralling a divided nation. Hopefully with time, that will change.

What about benevolence? Historically, national progress has tended towards humanism (i.e., the understanding of the value of human potential), from women’s right to vote to the current attempt to ban the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays serving in the military. The kindness and openness that children learn early in life lead to institutional improvements in a democratic nation — an open society. Without the value of benevolence as an anchor, intelligent leaders can rule unilaterally to shape a society as he sees fit, as Adolph Hitler did before World War II.

The third quality, integrity, is one acutely lacking among many leaders as well. That moral uprightness and the ability to make such decisions prevent the corruption seen in so many nations and industries. How many Americans were bilked out of their life savings by financier Bernie Madoff or ruined because of predatory lenders who downplayed the risks of subprime housing loans during the housing crisis in 2008? How many African citizens have been denied receiving public goods such as healthcare and education by corrupt public servants? Integrity is more important, in many ways, than wisdom. A feckless but morally principled leader stagnates national progress, but a highly intelligent but corrupt one will disastrously reverse it.

People in positions of authority — leaders — must be cultivated and vetted for all three of these qualities, as opposed to other current measures of productivity. Such upfront analysis would save taxpayers from paying the price in the end. Evaluating a person based on their wisdom, benevolence, and integrity should be the focus of an educated society. How does your current favorite candidate measure up?


Good Leader = Wisdom + Benevolence + Integrity

Wisdom = Intelligence + Experience/Good judgement

Benevolence = Kindness + Openness

Integrity = Inner values + Action

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