To do listLeaders, writes psychologist Howard Gardner, tend to have — and to need — an “inclination from early childhood for risk-taking and a willingness to go to great lengths — often in defiance of others, including those in positions of authority — in order to achieve their ends.” Then, too, a “motive to gain power — either for its own sake or in pursuit of a specific aim — is invariably present,” in leaders, as well as “a confidence that one will at least sometimes attain success” and an “implacability in the face of opposition.”

In a management textbook, Donelson Forsyth outlined several decades ago what was then the conventional wisdom of requirements for leadership. He listed things like achievement drive, adaptability, alertness, energy, responsibility, self-confidence and sociability.

Leadership guru John Gardner thinks leaders need to have physical stamina, intelligence and judgment; eagerness to accept responsibilities, task competence, a capacity to motivate, skill in dealing with people, the capacity to win and hold trust, the capacity to manage and decide and set priorities—and of course, if at all possible, charisma.

Warren Bennis’s list of leadership qualifications begins with “a guiding vision” and includes passion, integrity, trust (and trustworthiness), curiosity and daring, a “congruity” between visions and a leader’s life and personality, and reliability.

His earlier list of traits not being enough of a job description, Howard Gardner added a number of more detailed requirements. These included “a tie to the community (or audience)”; “a certain rhythm of life” that allows time for reflection and renewal; “an evident relation between stories and embodiments” in the person of the leader; and “the centrality of choice,” exercised by followers who need to be won over.

In The Leadership Challenge, James Kouzes and Barry Posner list as the “five fundamental practices of exemplary leadership” to “challenge the process,” “inspire a shared vision,” “enable others to act,” “model the way,” and “encourage the heart.”

Colin Powell’s well-travelled “Leadership Primer” has eighteen points, beginning with “Being responsible means sometimes pissing people off” and continuing to …

You begin to get the point.

For people aspiring to leadership positions in organizations, or new to them, thumbing through three or four of the leading books in the field can be a menacing experience. Curious would-be leaders are left with literally dozens of things that will be expected of them in their new roles. What if, they might rightly ask, “I’m not sure if I can “encourage the heart?”, “What if my ‘rhythm of life’ is off the mark?”,  “What if I’m not charismatic enough?”

And especially, “How in the world can I keep these dozens of things in my head all the time? How can I be speaking to someone and be thinking: Gee! Am I modelling the way right now? Am I pissing people off enough or am I seeking their approval too much?”

Anyone who’s done it or studied it will be quick to admit that leadership is far more art than science.

And yet, in good social scientific style, the leadership literature just can’t help but try to quasi-quantify this animal by boiling it down to the four or eight or twenty-three “essential principles.”

Even if any given list were accurate, there’s one thing the literature resolutely cannot promise you: that following it will guarantee success. A leader might be self-confident, but in a way that’s wrong for the context (for example, a nonprofit organization). She might “model the way” too aggressively for her colleagues in a partnership context (such as a law firm). She might deny authority once too often and earn her way out of a firm’s inner circle.

Then, too, any given context — organizational, national, industry-wise — will demand its own list. To lead scientists, for example, it helps an awful lot to have been a widely respected scientist at some point in one’s career, much more so than the same “specialist knowledge credibility” rule is true of, say, salespeople or marketers.

The bottom line is that the leadership literature — even the stuff by people who are rightly legends, like Warren Bennis and John Gardner — does a great disservice by promoting list-mania. We’ve quite enough of that around, in this “seven principles” age of ours.

What makes a successful leader? God knows, most of the time. Did Winston Churchill “enable others to act”? Did Martin Luther King have adaptability? Did Jack Welch display adequate sociability?

More than anything, great leaders seem to embody these lists, to reflect them naturally rather than making a study of them and pasting them to the top of the sunshade in their car for handy reference. They have a gut sense of what the context demands and a rough-and-ready approximation of the timeless practices of leaders.

Bottom line? To those emerging leaders and current leaders who would rely on the insightful works in this field, perhaps it’s best to ignore the lists. Focus on the analysis, the stories, the case histories. Absorb something of the flavour of these works. But no book or article  provide any leader with the six or eight principles they need to succeed, partly because that list is ultimately often unique to each job. Leadership cannot be reduced to lists.

Photo credit: Stuart Miles