What makes a great leader?

Question: Can leadership be taught?

Jim Barksdale: Well it absolutely can be taught. The best example of that is the military.  The military trains thousands of leaders every year.  The reasons is the consequence of poor leadership is death.  In business, you don’t have the same consequence most often.  But at Federal Express, we started a wonderful management course that we call “Leadership University”.  And it still goes on today, and we train thousands of managers a year because we had to.  We were growing so fast, and it was a core issue with a company like that, that we wanted to build a strong, well-managed company.  And I think we’ve been very successful.  It’s now recognized as one of the top one, two, or three customer service companies in the world in every poll, and it was done because of our leadership training.

Question: What makes a great leader?

Jim Barksdale: Well there are many tenets, but primarily a leader first and foremost has certain skills that they have to manage.  But those are generally the management skills of planning, organizing, staffing, directing and controlling.  You have to be able to do that.  A leader is one who can effectively cooperate and communicate.  They understand that the value at the end of the project is that everyone thinks they accomplished the project, not the leader.  A leader is self-effacing and is not self-centered and doesn’t seek all the glory for themselves.  But there are several characteristics of leaders that we all recognize.  If I asked you to make a list of five or 10 things that effective leaders you’ve work for, or with, or seen in action around the world – be they business, or political, or religious leaders – what are the characteristics of those people?  And there are such things as tact – to not offend but to be effective.  There were such things as decisiveness, bearing, concern for others.  There are several of those that are in a number of different curriculum; but they’re just some of the basic things that we as human beings admire in those who lead us.  And if we’re able to pay attention to that and replicate that, we will be known as having the characteristics of leaders.  And anyone who thinks about it and works at it can manage to do those things.

Question: Who are the great leaders?

Jim Barksdale: Well I tend to give companies more credit for being collections of lots of individuals.  Too often in our media driven world we want to find the one person at the top and give them the credit.  And generally my experience is that is certainly an important thing, but I think there are many . . . I have several people that I admire that I think are great leaders and have created great businesses.  Fred Smith of Federal Express could be one of them.  Warren Buffet and the work he’s done.  Bill Gates is one of them.  Steve Jobs has taught us a lot of things about creativity, and product design, and finding what people want and filling that need.  Most of the people I probably look up to are people that were in my field of business.  So I don’t pretend to know all the others; but I think Danny Cortese, the leader of the Mayo Clinic . . . I think he’s a great example of combining better medicine with effective business models of how to create affordable medical systems and healthcare for people throughout the country.  I think in the political arena, I have people that I’ve admired for years.  Colin Powell would be one of those people.  I’m an admirer of a lot of different leaders.  I was a great admirer of Martin Luther King.  I think he changed our society. 

Recorded on:  7/5/07



Barksdale, on starting "Leadership University."

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