Oct 5, 2009

From the Archives

30 Respected Leaders Weigh in on What It Takes to be a Master Leader

What happens when you bring together 30 of the top leaders in the country for a discussion about leadership? You get the book Master Leaders, written by George Barna, that delves into the critical dimensions of leadership based on the views of an august group of highly respected practitioners.

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Input for the book was gleaned from leaders as diverse as leadership gurus such as Warren Bennis, Ken Blanchard, Seth Godin and John Kotter, political leaders such as Governor Mike Huckabee and former House Majority Leader Newt Gingrich, championship-winning coaches Tony Dungy and Lou Holtz, blockbuster film producer Ralph Winter, corporate executives Colleen Barrett (Southwest Airlines president) and Don Soderquist (former COO of Wal-Mart), military heavyweights like Army General Robert Dees, and ministry leaders Henry Cloud, John Townsend and Senate Chaplain Barry Black – and that’s just half of the team assembled for the project!

George Barna, the researcher and author who wrote the book and orchestrated the conversations, said this was like participating in a leadership fantasy camp. “There wasn’t any question I asked related to any dimension of leadership regarding which I did not learn something valuable,” he commented. “You have to remember that cumulatively these leaders have more than 1,000 years of direct leadership experience, have published more than 300 books, and have sold more than 50 million copies of those books. This is a group of superstars that knows what they’re talking about. I quickly realized that the best thing to do in their presence is simply listen and learn. My job was to capture their wisdom and pass it along to those of us who want to grow in our leadership capabilities.”

A Broad Range of Discovery

Barna approached the project armed with more than 150 questions about the practical aspects of leadership. Those questions related to more than a dozen specific skills and practices. The dimensions explored included:

  • Hiring and firing: Sam Chand, a college president and leadership consultant, noted that you hire people for what they know and fire them for who they are (i.e., character issues). Ralph Winter underscored the importance of having detailed contracts with co-workers because “contracts are what you turn to if it doesn’t go well.”
  • Corporate culture: Warren Bennis described a viable organizational culture as one that majors on candor and transparency. “The cultures that are most toxic are those where nobody knows the truth – or where nobody is talking about it.” Meanwhile, Henry Cloud talked about developing a healthy culture by providing vision, values, structure, and assessment as fundamental necessities. Miles McPherson added that a healthy culture is facilitated by hiring healthy people.
  • Developing trust: advice ranged from Seth Godin’s simple admonition to trust the people you lead to John Townsend’s suggestion that trust must be preceded by openness, availability and vulnerability. General Dees added the importance of “just being there” as a source of strength for people to draw from, particularly during the trying and tense times a group encounters.
  • Humility: Patrick Lencioni, among others, described the importance of seeing leadership as an interdependent role, not a pedestal. He talked about the tension between being humble in their position while still believing that their decisions are crucial because of their effect on others. Ken Blanchard, along with others, defined leading people as the process of serving them well, putting the needs of the many ahead of the needs of the leader.
  • Power: great leaders know how to manage power, carefully exercising their moral authority. As John Kotter reminded us, great leaders “use power with intelligence and respect for others, with a sense of moral direction,” providing people with a moral framework for their choices and activities.
  • Handling pressure and criticism: Every leader will face criticism, but John Townsend suggested accepting it as a fact of life – “normalize criticism and pressure and expect it rather than hope it doesn’t happen.” Lou Holtz addressed the importance of doing your homework, saying that “pressure is when you have to do something you aren’t prepared to do.” And Barry Black reminded us that if we lead from an eternal perspective, “the pressure of the times is not nearly as cataclysmic” as it might otherwise seem.
  • Integrating faith: The leaders who are followers of Christ highlighted the principles of their faith and their relationship with Christ as touchstones for their efforts. Mike Huckabee talked about being concerned about how you represent Christ in your leadership endeavors. Laurie Beth Jones discussed the importance of identifying the higher authority to whom you are responsible: an executive, a board, shareholders, or God. Michael Franzese, a former Mafia leader now involved in Christian ministry, talked about his spiritual transformation and the realization that a leader’s morals can cause countless others to pursue the wrong paths in life.

Master Leaders contains 16 chapters focused on different components of leadership. Besides the topics listed above, the book deals with vision, values, developing leaders, conflict and confrontation, character development, following effectively, building teams, and discipline. In each chapter, multiple leaders are involved in the dialogue about the topic at hand, providing practical lessons drawn from their deep reservoir of experience and understanding.

Observations from Barna

His interactions with this group of hallowed leaders provided George Barna with a number of insights into how great leaders think and behave.

“One of the intriguing realizations for me,” explained Barna, “was that effective leaders move people forward by telling stories. I could have spent hours listening to these men and women describe their views on leadership, and the tales of how they led people toward the vision, because they communicated a grand and compelling narrative.

“Another helpful insight was that the best leaders see themselves as servants and they truly respect other people,” continued the California-based author of 44 books on leadership, faith and culture. “These leaders did not perceive a division between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ the indispensable ones and the worker bees. They viewed progress as the result of a cooperative effort in which everyone blended their diverse skills to create a new reality together. They acknowledged that a leader without a great team gets little, if anything, accomplished.

“I was also struck by the fact that so many of these esteemed leaders said the most important skill is listening,” Barna stated. “They described the necessity of listening to their fellow leaders, listening to their co-workers, and listening to what’s happening in the marketplace. Effective leadership requires the ability to ask the right questions, listen to a range of people and opinions, and then convert what they have heard into strategic action. A number of the leaders I interviewed had great proverbs about listening. For instance, Lou Holtz said he never learned anything by talking. Ken Blanchard said God gave us one mouth and two ears for a reason. Those are humorous comments but very insightful as well.”

Asked why he developed this resource in conjunction with Church Communication Network and Tyndale Publishers, Barna stated that it was part of his own journey as a leader. “I have so many areas in which I need to grow as a leader,” he admitted, “and I knew that whatever these tested leaders taught me would be helpful to other leaders, too. These are all people whom I admire for their ability to lead and to coach other leaders. Diving into the heart and soul of leadership with these champions of the process has been one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life, and one that I believe will be very useful to many other people, as well.”

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About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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