“This is a good and historic day.” President Barack Obama, announcing the death of Osama Bin Laden
There is a specific challenge that overly-clever folks often toss my way which usually follows the form of “Wouldn’t you say Hitler was a great leader?” or “You have to admit that David Koresh was an effective leader.” The argument usually centers on the sheer number of followers that each of these people (and many other tyrants) have been able to claim and “great” or “effective” means that these leaders were able to obtain specific and desired actions from their followers. I have no doubt that Osama bin Laden will join the list of people that those who are convinced that they have me, will use in future challenges.
My response is usually somewhere between esoteric and non-confrontational. After all, I’m an academic…it’s not my role to cram my values down other people’s throats. It’s my role to provoke a level of inquiry that allows students and others to form their own informed opinions. But, remembering where I was and what I was doing on September 11th,2001, and looking at the lunacy that has followed for the past decade, I realize that I have done nobody a great service by allowing the question of “great leadership” to be solely an intellectual exercise.
So, let’s get this straight from the beginning. Osama bin Laden was NOT a great leader by any reasonable definition. If you chose to argue the standard “Hitler” argument on this one you can, but it’s predictable. It looks like this:
Premise 1. Osama bin Laden had the ability to unite, assemble and control a vast number of widely diverse people focused on clear vision.
Premise 2. Through his leadership skills, bin Laden was also able to achieve a desired outcome that no other leader before him had accomplished in a successful and devastating attack within U.S. shores.
Premise 3. He also used innovation as a way to work around the otherwise overwhelming technology and manpower of his enemies to continue to lead for nearly 10 years after 9/11/01.
Premise 4. And similar to the argument that Hitler was a great leader because he took a destitute Germany and made it a united and powerful world influence, there will be those that will argue that, at least for some of the Muslim population, his fatwa united a destitute people into becoming a worldwide influence.
All of these arguments presuppose that leadership is only defined by an individual’s ability to gain and unite followers and to focus them on a clear and specific vision. The measure used for the “desired outcome” is always time-limited. Perhaps it’s a year or 10-years or even longer, but those who chose to make this argument always have to look at the short-term…otherwise it wouldn’t be "controversial" to debate the point to begin with. Germany was decimated after World War II and Afghanistan, Pakistan and much of the Middle East will take years to recover from the damage of al Qaeda.
It does not take a leader to influence people by using sheer force. It also does not take a leader to find a group of desperate followers and manipulate them to some delirious or misguided end point. Providing some form of hope for the hopeless requires nothing more than a strong story line, charisma and the guts (or sociopathic tendencies) necessary to claim a personal vision as salvation for the masses. When you see no future for yourself, you are particularly susceptible to following anybody who can promise you something better. If that person can appeal to your sense of justice or of religious or moral values, they can even more easily prompt you to be manipulated. That isn’t a leader…that’s a tyrant.
One of my favorite authors, Marshall Goldsmith, said in one of his blogs, “Recognize that being aware of the impact that your behavior has on other people is a critical leadership skill.” This is where the “Tyrant Leader” argument falls completely apart and why true leadership has to be judged on a longer term horizon. Saying that an individual may be evil, but at the same time a great leader is a fallacy in my opinion. Leadership and morality are inextricably linked. Can we (WILL we) disagree on what constitutes “evil?” Of course we can and we have been for millennia. But then we are in a debate about morals, ethics and integrity…all of which are primary struggles that each person needs to intentionally grapple with if she or he is going to be a truly great leader.