I was reading USA Today yesterday and ran across an interview with American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault. I really enjoyed his response when asked to characterize leaders who do well: “The best definition of leadership to me is summed up in a quote: “The role of the leader is to define reality and give hope” – by Napoleon.”

(No need to harass Chenault about his management style, he goes on to say that he does not want to end up like Napoleon).

My take: You may not like what Napoleon did, but it is hard to deny that he was a great leader. His quote really does define the essence of leadership. It nicely captures many of the characteristics that I think are critical for good leaders:

  • Deal with the reality of the world. I’ve always loved Jack Welch’s quote: “Deal with the world as it is, not how you’d like it to be.” Many executives think they can impose their will on the rest of the world. Unfortunately, this makes it very difficult for the people who work for them who must operate within the constraints of the real world.
  • Engage your employees. Walt Disney really understood the importance of motivating the people in his organization. He captured it well in this quote: “You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.”
  • Provide a clear vision. Leaders are involved in only a small fraction of the decisions within their organizations. So they need to make sure that the myriad of other decisions will collectively drive the organization in the right direction. They can’t be wishy-washy. As Newark’s Mayor Booker said: “Life is about focus. What you focus on, you become. If you focus on nothing, you become nothing.” If people know where they are going, they are more likely to get there.
  • Maintain a sense of purpose. It’s not good enough just to have a vision; leaders need to make sure that their organizations have a strong sense of purpose. And it needs to be clear to their employees and customers. As Howard Shultz, founder and Chairman of Starbucks, has been quoted as saying: “Customers must recognize that you stand for something.“

The bottom line: While Napoleon’s quote is a great guidepost for leaders, I don’t condone adopting his practice of resolving conflicts with a coup d’état.

This blog post was originally published by Temkin Group prior to its acquisition by Qualtrics in October 2018.

Categories : Culture