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Education for Leadership
By Eliot A. Cohen
The following article was
originally published in the 2002 issue of SAISPHERE. Reprinted
with the kind permission of the author and the Paul Nitze School of
Advanced International Studies of The Johns Hopkins University.
Part 1 of 2
SAIS tells its students that they will become
leaders in international affairs. But what does that mean, really? Is
leadership something that can be taught, and is it different in an
international context than in a domestic one? And how should one hope to
learn it here? Begin with a definition: Leadership
is the art of getting people to do things they would not otherwise do, or
to strive and achieve more than they otherwise might.
It is not management, which is the practice of coordinating and directing
purposive human activity. Nor is it command, which is the circumscribed
right to issue authoritative instructions. Management is closer to a
technical skill than an art, which explains why business schools may
prepare competent managers, but indifferent leaders. For that matter,
ideologically inert or decaying authoritarian societies may produce able
enough managers of everything from steel complexes to airlines, but will
probably find the grooming of real leaders a more difficult task.
Command--the kind of authority exercised by a general on a battlefield, a
pilot in a cockpit or a doctor in an emergency room--is easily confused
with leadership, but is different from it. Where management is omnipresent
in society, command is limited to narrow sets of circumstances. Even in
the military, which most civilians think of as a realm given over to
unquestioning obedience, command is limited. An American general once
wrote, "Discipline and morale influence the inarticulate vote that is
constantly taken by masses of men when the order comes to move forward...
but the Army does not move forward until the motion has carried." A vote
it remains. The second lieutenant or the ship skipper who simply falls
back on command rather than leadership swiftly finds his or her
organization in trouble, if not quite literally aground.
Finally, leadership is sometimes confused with office, that is, title,
position or place. Often enough, vice presidents or senior directors
cannot lead, nor command, nor manage: Yet the courtier instinct,
present in virtually all organizations, sometimes leads people to pretend
that "the boss" exercises all three functions. Indeed, one of the first
tasks of a student of leadership is to discriminate between the real and
the nominal, which may be no easy task.
The Basics and Beyond
Leadership is all around us. A committee to organize a day hike requires
some management (to make sure that the lunches are packed and a route is
picked) and a tiny element of command (so that the bus driver knows when
to show up and where to go), but a modicum of leadership as well (so that
the athletic and the indolent alike have a good time). Parenting and
teaching require leadership. So, too, does entrepreneurship, or the
creation of a relief program.
The really great leaders are geniuses in their own line of work--they have
qualities that shine, and they seem to work on instincts that few of us
share. They are the kinds of people (and most of us have met a few like
this) who light up a room with an aura. Our hearts tell us--at times, even
us--to follow them, even if our heads might urge caution.
This kind of leadership is something like magic. It is inimitable.
But for most of us, leadership skills are more acquired than innate.
One might think, in that case, that leadership is easy enough to pick up.
And, in fact, the basics are readily enough taught, even to children.
Consider the following episode from C.S. Lewis's children's stories,
The Chronicles of Narnia
. In A Horse and His Boy
, Lewis tells
the story of two princes separated at birth, the older of whom is brought
up in a distant land by a fisherman. After various adventures, Cor is
reunited with his younger brother, Corin, and their father, King Lune. To
his dismay, Cor learns that as the older son he is to become king.
"But Father, couldn't you make whichever you like to be the next King?"
"No. The King's under the law, for it's the law makes him a king. Has not
more power to start away from thy crown than any sentry from his post."
"Oh, dear," said Cor. "I don't want to at all. And Corin--I am most
dreadfully sorry. I never dreamed my turning up was going to chisel you
out of your kingdom."
"Hurrah! Hurrah!" said Corin. "I shan't have to be King. I shan't have to
be King. I'll be a prince. It's princes have all the fun."
"And that's truer than thy brother knows, Cor," said King Lune. "For this
is what it means to be a king: To be first in every desperate attack and
last in every desperate retreat, and when there's hunger in the land (as
must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder
over a scantier meal than any man in your land."
In a passage readily accessible to an intelligent 10-year-old, one has
some fundamental principles of leadership at hand. Cor has already begun
to learn the difference between responsibility and office and the
importance of personal example in both prosperity and adversity, of
cheerfulness in the midst of difficulty and, implicitly, of visible
self-sacrifice for a larger good.
Good military organizations obsess about the importance of developing good
junior leaders. Understanding full well the terrible stresses war puts on
soldiers, they know that formal authority may count for very little in a
pinch. During the siege of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, for example, the nominal
commander of a beleaguered French base in the Laotian highlands was
deposed by a committee of middle-ranking officers. The general ended up
taking a backseat as a small band of majors and lieutenant colonels
organized a desperate and, in the end, impossible defense of their
Modern armies seek not merely willing and intelligent obedience, but
initiative--often in situations of ultimate difficulty. They, too, begin
with the basics. In 1942, General William Slim led a badly battered
polyglot army of Indian and British soldiers out of Burma: They had barely
avoided annihilation at the hands of a Japanese force superior in
virtually every respect. He had the task of rebuilding not only the form
of the organization but its spirit, and for that reason his memoir,
Defeat Into Victory, is well worth reading. One of his speeches to
officers included this famous sentence: "I tell you, as officers, that you
will not eat, sleep, smoke, sit down or lie down until your soldiers have
had a chance to do these things. If you do this, they will follow you to
the ends of the earth. If you do not, I will break you in front of your
As military organizations seek to create effective junior leaders, they
pound into them these kinds of simple maxims: "The fellow in charge eats
last." "Your priorities are, in this order, your mission, your men,
yourself." "Don't ask your people to do something that you are not
prepared to do." "The command is not 'forward,' but 'follow me.'" In a
myriad of ways, they create circumstances in which junior leaders must put
these maxims into practice and, in military organizations with well
developed noncommissioned officers systems, they pair the new officer with
a sergeant or petty officer who is a nominal subordinate (though 15 years
or so older than the new lieutenant or ensign) but actually a kind of
The maxims of elementary leadership are thus quite simple--although, of
course, often difficult to live by. One need only look at the wretched
corporate scandals of recent months to see how easy it is for those at the
top of organizations to think of perquisites as rights, to forget that
simple mantra of "My mission, my men, myself." Nor is this any less true
of governmental or nonprofit organizations than of those entities that
seek to make money.
International leadership creates further burdens. So much of a leader's
success rests on the little things--the hug or slap on the back, the
tricks of speech, the small talk around campfire or water cooler or
cafeteria table. Yet these are also matters in which culture plays an
enormous role. In some societies, failure to establish physical contact
means remoteness or lack of interest; in others it is an infringement upon
an individual's dignity. In some cultures, informality is a sign of
regard; in others the reverse is true, and so on. There is no rule here,
save that of tact. Dwight D. Eisenhower showed a genius for international
leadership when he fired his first American colonel for calling a fellow
staff officer "you British son of a bitch." "I don't mind the 'son of a
bitch' part," he is reported to have said. "It's the 'you British' that
Nor should one assume that cultural leadership norms are rigid. Japanese
managers have done remarkably well in motivating American automotive
workers, not least by getting rid of many of the perquisites of special
parking and cafeterias for managers that flourished in this nominally
Quite apart from culture in this broadest sense, many other contextual
considerations shape leadership. The kind of behavior that works
effectively in one well-defined organization may fail miserably in
another, even if the organizations appear outwardly similar. In this way,
the versatile leader is a kind of amateur anthropologist before he or she
is a practitioner, seeking to learn customs, rites and, above all, the
physical environment before deciding how to act.
To take another military case: Leadership on a nuclear submarine is
radically different from leadership of a Marine infantry battalion.
Everything from the level of tolerable noise to the emphasis on physical
conditioning is different, and even if one could teach Marine lieutenant
colonels nuclear engineering and ship handling and bring nuclear
submariners to a high level of athletic keenness and tactical acuity, it
is unlikely that one could take the other's place without a substantial
change in how they do business.
The size of an organization is also critical to leadership style. There
are those who can spin up an organization of 200 people who would be at a
loss to inspire one of 20,000. The reverse is equally true. Beyond the
basic maxims, then, leadership challenges are infinitely variable.
Can leadership Be learned?
Leadership is a practical, not theoretical, art. There are, therefore,
limits to how much of it can be imparted in a classroom. It is more a
matter of self- study than of formal instruction; military organizations
are probably unique in the opportunities they provide for modest doses of
theory reinforced by massive quantities of carefully contrived practice
and coaching. Most people, and certainly most SAIS students, are not
likely to join the armed services and, for that matter, military
leadership skills do not always translate perfectly into civilian
equivalents. How, then, should one teach oneself leadership?
The depressing bookstore shelves crammed with meretricious primers on
leadership (Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun
and the like) are
most definitely the wrong place to begin. But there are some classics
worth pondering. One of the more interesting is the Meditations
Marcus Aurelius, the reflections of one of the last emperors from the
Golden Age of Rome. The first section of this slim volume--which seems to
have been written as a kind of philosophical exercise rather than a
text--is an extended giving of thanks to those who molded his character
and a sober accounting of what it was they taught. It highlights a central
fact: One learns ways of conduct, including leadership skills, more by
observation and emulation than study. Generations of leaders in many
fields model the behaviors of those who precede them: Marcus's wise advice
is to do so self-consciously.
Nothing matches struggling with the real tasks of leadership, but in its
stead, vicarious experience is invaluable--which is why earlier, more
literate generations studied Plutarch and why political leaders often have
a passion for biography. Art, particularly in the form of theater and
film, has much to teach, as well. "Twelve O'Clock High," Darryl Zanuck's
1950 tale of an American general who turns around a failing bomber group
in England, but at a terrible price, is a staple of business school
classes on leadership. Texts as old as the Bible or The Iliad
contemporary as a Tom Stoppard play reveal leaders in moments of crisis as
well as triumph--and in this they are far better than the mindlessly
upbeat nostrums for success in public or private life proffered by popular
authors. Nor should poetry be ignored: Read Robert Browning's "The Lost
Leader" to know what it feels like to be betrayed by one who has
sacrificed real leadership without title or glory for ignominy and "a
riband to stick in his coat."
©2002 The Paul Nitze School of Advanced
International Studies of The Johns Hopkins University.