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Hi I am Jim Zarvos. I am a transformational leadership trainer and consultant. I have set up this blog to gain feedback on the book I am writing "The Absolutes of Leadership." Feel free to offer...

The Absolutes of Leadership


Leadership is as important now as it has ever been. Within business, government, and education, it’s clear to me the call for leadership today is a loud and urgent one. In a world of economic, organizational, technological, opportunity and instability, we desperately need leaders to answer this call with workable solutions to today’s most vexing problems.

Naturally, leadership is always a hot management topic, and many opinions exist as to the crucial ingredients of leadership. In most cases, the approach taken seems to be: “Our leadership model is better than the others.” Many leadership styles have been put forth over the years, from command and control to service-based; to transformational. My motivation for writing this book is to attempt to move the leadership debate forward by suggesting a set of absolutes that every leader must follow in order to be a leader regardless of style.

One of the more interesting books I have ever read is a 1978 comparative history by Michael Hart called The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History. In this book, Hart takes a courageous path by recognizing some individuals as influential even though their influence is widely viewed as having been destructive. As Hart states in his introduction, “This book is solely involved with the question of who were the 100 persons who had the greatest effect on history and on the course of the world.”

Hart makes the case for the influence of scientists, writers, statesmen, prophets, inventors, and explorers. Many familiar names from Newton to Bach to Columbus make up the list. Hart, however, is not afraid to go out on a limb to include someone unexpected; or to rank a person highly when he feels the evidence calls for it. For instance, one of his more intriguing (and lengthy) chapters is on Edward de Vere, a British nobleman whom Hart is convinced is the real author of the plays we typically attribute to William Shakespeare. A particularly gutsy call was ranking Muhammad number one on the list, just above Isaac Newton, Jesus Christ, Buddha, and Confucius. Hart’s main explanation for Muhammad’s top position was that he was the only man in history to be “supremely successful on both a religious and secular level.” Other rankings stood out for me. I initially found it off-putting to see someone like Hitler listed at number thirty-nine, nestled between inventor Guglielmo Marconi and the great philosopher Plato. Though Hart shares my dislike of Hitler, he stays true to his mission to rank the most influential persons of history—regardless of whether their impact was good, bad, or even ugly.

It was with Hart’s book in mind that I began to explore the idea of the absolutes of leadership. I wasn’t interested in ranking various leaders influence, but in pursuing the question: What is the “stuff” that all leaders share, whether they be empowering styles such as John Wooden or more heavy handed like Bobby Knight? Setting aside individual personalities and leadership styles, are there certain qualities that are non-negotiable aspects of any leader?

I’m not a historian; I’m a business owner and an organizational and leadership consultant. My passion is to equip today’s business leaders with the tools and perspectives necessary to be successful in their pursuits. As anyone who has ever held a job in the business world knows, a giant chasm separates the manager who truly inspires performance from the manager who does little more than point at, and fight fires. In most cases, the would-be leader has a sincere desire to become a first-class leader, but is lacking one or more critical attributes that all leaders possess. Without recognition of a missing leadership attribute, a manager can thrash about with great commitment but ultimately fail to gain sustainable ground.

A lot has been written about leadership; most I’ve had the pleasure of reading. However, there is still no consensus on what makes a leader—a leader. This book attempts to lay out the absolutes of leadership. The absolutes described in this book are meant to help facilitate and support everyday heroes such as parents and schoolteachers, and my primary target audience; executives, business owners, and organizational leaders.

This is my attempt to synthesize the common abilities, intentions, mindsets, and practices that all leaders share. So first the age old question: are leaders born or made? It’s my premise and belief that leaders are, for the most part, created after birth. I personally believe leadership is like golf in the sense that it’s never too late to start learning. It may be more difficult the longer one waits, but leadership can always be grasped provided one has the dedication to do the work that’s required.

I’ve been mapping out various versions of my take on the absolutes of leadership for the better part of twelve years. Often, during the process, I’ve been interrupted by a large neon sign in my mind posing the nagging question: Who the heck are you to answer this question?

The first few times I attempted to provide an answer by reminding myself that I have years of experience in leading various organizations, and coaching 1000’s of business and community leaders worldwide. I’ve also read more than my share of books and articles about leadership and have thought long and hard about difficult leadership issues.

This did little to quell the doubt. I have always known that “getting it right” is naïve, but I still wanted to contribute by “getting it right.” Eventually clarity prevailed and I can humbly say “Here’s what I think…what about you?”

While I believe I am offering an informative and helpful response to the question: What makes a leader a leader? At the end of the day, I don’t lay claim to any superior knowledge, much less the “truth” of the matter.

Once more I am influenced by Michael Hart, who so expertly makes his case for each and every ranking of his top 100 influential persons. Knowledgeable and conscientious, Hart nevertheless presents his point of view with an underlying humility. He realizes, as do I, that at the end of the day he’s just one guy with an opinion. And rather than shying away from that fact, I prefer to emphasize it in order to embrace the vast potential for “audience participation,” so to speak. That is, I welcome the wisdom and insight of others in developing a theory of what characteristics constitute absolute leadership.

Think of this book, then, as a stimulus for your own inquiry. If you are a leader or desire to become one, it can be only to your advantage to seriously consider the question of what attributes are crucial for all leaders. You might notice various gaps in your own characteristics as compared to my list. If so, follow my recommendations on how to close each gap as you pursue your own development. By engaging in the inquiry of leadership absolutes and exploring your responses, you will push yourself to grow as a leader. Getting to the absolute and core truth about whether or not my proposed attributes are the actual absolutes of leadership could have you miss the point. My intent is to serve as a spur in the side of all leaders, prompting you to “gitty-up and go” out of the comfortable confines of the fenced paddock and into the open field where leading from new possibilities appear endless. I want to admit to my other intent in writing this book. I want to champion you as a leader. In fact, an even better one than you are today. As you read you might notice I am cheerleading for you to become an “absolute” leader. I make no apologies for that. I know I could have kept the book more neutral by only addressing the absolutes—but that to me would be a wasted opportunity if we weren’t pursuing new possibilities together as leaders on our planet.

Let’s begin!

As a starting place, I first had to determine my approach to the question of “what makes a leader a leader?” I knew I had to confront the fact that, like everyone, I am influenced by my own beliefs and underlying assumptions about leadership. In fact in case you are wondering, I espouse to a transformational leadership style. And, as an American, my perspectives on leadership are largely based on learned Western presuppositions built up over thousands of years including but hardly limited to Aristotle, Judeo/Christian values, technological paradigms, and my own experiences leading and coaching leaders. So not only is it impossible for me to be totally objective, I could ask any ten of you reading this “what factors make a leader a leader?” and receive different answers.

Some of you will insist that effective leaders are innately great men and women who have simply been blessed with leadership attributes. In this view, men like Winston Churchill are simply “natural born leaders.” Another might argue leadership is largely situational. One might think of the many Hollywood movies based on the premise of an ordinary man or woman thrust into extraordinary circumstances. The protagonist always seems to rise to the occasion in the movies. However in real life that’s not often the case. Others might argue that one person’s “effective leader” is another person’s “thug,” and cannot in good conscience apply the term “leader” to someone like Egypt’s recently deposed President—Hosni Mubarak. Still others find no issue with the more militaristic notion of a leader as a necessarily important figure whom others are compelled to follow. The latest trend in leadership styles asserts that winning in today’s world requires a leader to empower and inspire his or her followers to think and act like stewards and innovators.

So how does one “drill down” to the core attributes of a leader? If they exist, what are the core absolute characteristics of a leader, and if they do exist, how do leaders attain them? Further, how can we explore these issues as objectively as possible? To delve into these questions, I suggest we (both the writer and the reader) take advantage of one particular tool, the Hermeneutic Circle.

The Hermeneutic Circle is a concept currently being used in linguistic research. It’s employed, by scholars studying ancient texts as a way to grapple with the uncertainty of having to interpret various and sometimes conflicting translations. Even if one can be reasonably sure of the technical accuracy of a word-by-word translation, the vexing question remains as to what the words actually meant to people living in that particular time and place.

Hermeneutics” is basically the study of interpretation. One begins with a set of operating assumptions about what he is reading and then lets those assumptions inform his interpretation of the text’s content. While reading, he maintains an open curiosity about the content. What often happens is that a portion of the text’s content appears to contradict one’s original set of assumptions. He then returns to his operating assumptions and tweaks them to “fit” with the text. After this, he rereads the portion of text to see what it might be saying in light of his updated set of assumptions. A repeated back and forth between assumptions and text is undertaken as a means of moving closer and closer to the true meaning of the text.

I’m not a linguist, but what I take away from hermeneutics is that a person has to start somewhere when seeking to investigate meaning; and the more clear and deliberate the start, the better the analysis will be. My intention with regard to leadership, then, is to make my starting assumptions as explicit as possible and let you go from there. Throughout your reading this book, you can use my views on the absolutes of leadership as a starting point for your own model to take form.

One assumption I make is that I can identify who a leader is based on the “absolutes.” To start us out, I’m going to name five indisputable leaders who vary widely in both their professional fields and values. Other than the fact that they are well-known figures, I have not chosen these particular leaders out of any personal affinity or even fascination. I could have just as easily chosen five others, or twenty-five others.

My five indisputable leaders are: Mahatma Gandhi, Steve Jobs, Jack Welch, Mother Theresa, and Adolf Hitler. First off, there are a multitude of differences in these leaders’ temperament, values, management style, and sphere of influence. I wouldn’t be unique in characterizing Gandhi as inclusive, Jobs as dynamic, Welch as tough, Mother Theresa as compassionate, and Hitler as a destructive megalomaniac.

As in Hitler’s case, we all know about his inner drive to conquer Europe and perhaps the whole world, as well as his obsession with creating a master race. I have no uncertainty when it comes to condemning Hitler’s actions. His appalling record of brutality and disregard for human life ultimately produced only one good result, his downfall.

Grievous as his rule turned out to be, Hitler was nevertheless a leader. He led the Nazi party into power and he convinced millions of Germans to carry out his strategy of war and discrimination. Hitler had a vision, and persuaded many to carry out his ideas. Thankfully he failed to achieve his distorted vision of a unified Germany.

Whether good or bad, right or wrong, decent or indecent, I begin with the assumption that these five were or are leaders, with Jobs still going strong (knock on wood with his health) at Apple as I write this. Using that premise as a starting point, let’s ask ourselves, “What do these men and woman have in common?” If we can answer that question, we should have a starting point to create an initial frame for the absolutes of leadership. I choose these five leaders because they are so disparate in their personal characteristics. My next assumption is any similarities among them should be highly informative for our understanding of leadership.

On a methodological note, while this grouping of five leaders helped ground my thinking and shaped my analysis, I will not focus much on their individual biographies in this book. That is, I will not be explicitly supporting each assertion about leadership with a rigorous point-by-point discussion of each leader’s attributes and accomplishments.

I also think it’s important to keep the image of a leadership continuum in mind as you read this book. As you and I explore the idea of absolutes in leadership, I will not be claiming that every leader throughout time has a sterling record regarding each and every suggested absolute. It’s a spectrum. Any given leader is likely to shine with respect to some leadership attributes, and measure okay on the rest. My bottom-line assertion is that all leaders possess and are/were at least minimally competent at each attribute I consider an absolute.

To differentiate the absolutes of leadership, I use a five-part model of Identity-Intentions-Qualities-Practices-Results. I am implying that there is a way leaders think about themselves; as well as deliberate and clear intentions (a decision about a future outcome), qualities or attributes all leaders exude, habits they share by way of common practices, and a specific result all leaders aspire to cause. The first thing to keep in mind with the Identity-Intentions-Qualities-Practices-Results model is the purposefulness of the dashes between each characteristic in the model. The reason for the dashes is that each aspect always cascades into the next. One’s identity leads to how they see their role, intentions, and available options. Intentions lead to the development of the necessary qualities and practices necessary to manifest a leader’s vision and intentions.

So before we jump in, a final caveat is in order. While I often read a book bouncing from chapter to chapter in no particular order, I recommend reading this book in the sequential order that reflects the five-part model.

The first chapter captures the idea of identity and the role of the leader. The next five chapters introduce the five intentions every leader values and knows is instrumental in their success. In Chapters 7-11 you will learn about the “beingness” or qualities of a leader. Chapters 12-17 cover the practices that all leaders embody. Finally, in Chapter 18 we will be discussing the outcomes and results every leader strives to create.

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