Leaders should reflect on a key question: Who must I be, and what must I do to bring about and advance the vision I have for the common good? Having learned the art of self-discipline, strong leaders are master listeners, master communicators, and masters of their emotions. Honesty lives at the core of their moral compass; it undergirds and supports the public trust. Strong, effective, and moral leaders speak the truth to themselves and to others without shaving it.
On the eve of Britain’s entrance into World War II, Winston Churchill delivered the stark and sobering truth to a nation in distress: “I have nothing to offer you but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”
George Washington was acclaimed for his integrity, wisdom, and astounding courage on the battlefield, and Nelson Mandela, as a “colossus of unimpeachable character.”
Rose Kennedy was not a public figure but the matriarch of a family of political leaders. She inspired thousands of men and women through her courage in the face of so many family tragedies.
The Burmese-Myanmar politician, statesperson, and author Aung San Suu Kyi has inspired women throughout the world for her courage to withstand fifteen years of house arrest by the authorities who considered her an enemy of the state. She writes in Freedom from Fear: “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”
Effective leaders have the ability to communicate clearly and persuasively. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a charismatic patrician. With his clear sense of noblesse oblige, he led the country through the Great Depression. From his struggle with polio, he learned to empathize with others. Roosevelt’s fireside chats gave him a direct, personal, and immediate contact with the country. He simplified his grand-scale programs capped by the motto, “The New Deal” which gave jobs to the millions of unemployed roaming the streets in despair.
As a sickly child and young adult, President John F. Kennedy spent many solitary hours with books. The breadth of his reading history and politics, literature, science, travel, and biography served as one source of his eloquence, whether in prepared speeches or presented spontaneously. His press conferences became the stuff of conversation pieces in Washington. The press corps was riveted as much on Kennedy’s oratory as on his responses to questions. Here was a master communicator thoroughly enjoying his own press conferences.
Winston Churchill’s strongest quality as a leader was his ability to inspire others, despite the ominous circumstances Britain was facing during his tenure as Prime Minister. The source of this ability lay in his own character—and of course his ability to find the right words to fit the country’s mood. On the eve of World War II in 1940, Churchill declared before the House of Commons: “We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” Labor MP Josiah Wedgwood promptly responded: “That was worth 1,000 guns, and the speeches of 1,000 years.”
In April 1963, when President Kennedy made Churchill an Honorary Citizen of the United States—Churchill’s mother was an American—the President offered this word of praise: “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”
Sense of Humor
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Strong leaders have a developed sense of humor that may enhance their Office. “I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I have enjoyed it,” declared the President in the spring of 1961 on their visit to France.
Acerbic wit was never far from President Lincoln’s lips or from Winston Churchill’s. In a letter to his good friend, Joshua F. Speed, Lincoln wrote, “When the Know-Nothings get control, it [the Declaration of Independence] will read: 'All men are created equal except negroes, foreigners and Catholics.' When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.” Regarding his pro-slavery opponents Lincoln declared, “Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”
One evening as a tired and wobbly Churchill was leaving the House of Commons, the Labor MP Bessie Braddock accused him of being disgustingly drunk.” He replied: “Bessie, my dear, . . . you are disgustingly ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober, and you will still be disgustingly ugly.”
Leaders have vision, a quality that conceives of an idea or sees a picture into the future before others can visualize it. St. Ignatius of Loyola chose and trained leaders who would be affable, attractive, and persuasive messengers of his vision and not those who were rich or powerful.
In Back to Methuselah, George Bernard Shaw wrote: “You dream dreams and say “Why?” But I dream dreams that never were and say “Why not?” His words were paraphrased by Robert F. Kennedy in his 1968 campaign for the presidential nomination. Transformative leaders can rouse a nation to action when their goals are persuasive. They articulate a shared raison d’être in words such as the Rev. Martin L. King, Jr. orated in his “I have a dream” speech.” He asked men and women to dream today and tomorrow of a better America.