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Question: What makes a great leader?

Robert Hormats: A great leader I think is defined by several factors. One, integrity and candor. If you’re not able to be candid; if you’re not able to demonstrate integrity, at one point or another, you will not be able to command the loyalty of the American people or any group of people for that matter.

In a company or a country, in a city or a state, you have to exude integrity. You have to exude candor. The people who do that are the great leaders. Those who don’t will never qualify as a great leader.

Second, you need to have a sense of vision. What are the implications of what I’m recommending, of what I’m doing for the next 20 or 30 years? History will regard those people as great leaders. People who look for the short term good at the expense of the long term good will never be considered great leaders of companies, or of countries, or of anything else.

And the third is the ability to respect the views of others. Without an ability to respect the views and the opinions of others, and to try and understand them, you’re not going to be a great leader. You can have the smartest person around. If they can’t work with other people; if they can’t demonstrate a respect for where other people are coming from – their concerns, their passions, their apprehensions – it’s awfully hard to be a really great reader.

And fourth, you have to go to meet problems. You can’t let problems come to you.

One of the great stories about Abraham Lincoln is that during the Civil War, large numbers of union soldiers came back wounded. And there were these caravans and wagons bringing them back. Lincoln didn’t sit in the White House saying, “Isn’t that a shame.” He would go out in his carriage or on horseback and meet these caravans of troops and talk to them. He never shied away from this. He didn’t try to sort of put it out of his mind and say, “Well we’re not going to acknowledge that all these people are wounded.” He went out to meet the problem head on.

And the great leaders don’t wait for a problem to come to them. They go to meet the problem. And they don’t give up when there’s a moment of adversity. They don’t give up and say, “Oh well I tried.” They say, “How can I do better? What’s the next step?” They’re determined and committed to dealing with problems.

Lincoln, if he’d taken a poll during the Civil War, most Americans would have said, “Let the South go. Divide the country up. Too much bloodshed.” Lincoln had the view that you got to keep the country together. If Roosevelt had taken a poll during parts of World War II where there was a lot of carnage, some people might have said, “Well that’s enough. Come home.”

And during the Cold War the same thing. A lot of people really didn’t want to play an active role; and yet a number of people, particularly Eisenhower and [Harry] Truman at the beginning of the Cold War, understood that this was a battle for world freedom.

And I think you get this in other countries. Somebody like Nelson Mandela, who is another inspirational figure. He wasn’t just attempting to end Apartheid for its own sake, as important as that was. He was trying to build a new society, a multiracial society. He could have come out of Robben Island bitter and embittered. We’re going take on the white community, and take on the Indian community, and we’re going to really show them who’s boss.

He as well as Martin Luther King and Gandhi understood that if you really want to be a leader, you have to pull people together. You have to integrate people and get them to think along the lines you’re thinking, not try to pound things into them or dominate their thinking. You have to lead by example with good values and integrity. I think those are the kinds of people who inspire me, and the kind of people who are able to change society in a positive way.


Recorded On: July 25, 2007


What makes a great leader?

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