What makes an effective leader?

By Peter Corney

Image by Denis Collette

I have read a lot of books on leadership both secular and Christian and found useful insights in many of them. (My top ten are listed at the end of this article.) But recently I read a study of major leaders of the 20th C. “Leading Minds -An Anatomy of Leadership” by Howard Gardner.(1) Many of the leaders he analyses faced the enormous challenges of the Second World War period, the post Colonial era and the dramatic changes of the sixties. Included are people as diverse as General George Marshall who conceived and implemented The Marshal Plan for the reconstruction of Europe after the devastation of the war and Martin Luther King Jnr. who lead the successful civil rights campaigns in the US. In the 60’s

I found Gardner’s analysis and conclusions about the common elements of effective leadership insightful and compelling. They also resonated with my own experience of leaders and leadership.

Here is his own summery of what he describes as the six enduring features of effective leaders.

A leader is likely to achieve success only if he or she can construct and convincingly communicate a clear and persuasive story; appreciate the nature of the audience(s), including its changeable features; invest their own (or channel others) energy in the building and maintenance of an organization; embody in their own life the principle contours of the story; either provide direct leadership or find a way to achieve influence through indirect means; and, finally, find a way to understand and make use of, without being overwhelmed by, increasingly technical expertise. (2)

The six key things identified here (in my order) are:

1. The ability to develop a story and communicate it. This is what is sometimes called the power of a vision. It might be the possibility of curing a disease or creating an organization to eliminate poverty in a community or provide a new education system that will engage marginalized youth or building a business that will be more efficient and profitable and fun to work in or it might be the vision to transform a church into a radically committed and powerful community. The story has to be clear and  understandable by both the tutored and untutored and it must be communicated convincingly and persuasively.

2. The leader must embody the story in their own life. If the vision is to eliminate poverty in a community then the leader must live a life style that is frugal, sacrificial and responsible. They must demonstrate personal commitment to the story.

3. The leader must build an organization and channel others energy into the organization. The story will not be translated into reality without an effective organization. The organization must be maintained for the story to have long term effect. To have wide influence and long term effect the leader can not just be an impractical visionary.

4. Understand and appreciate the ‘audience’ and its changeable features. What is sometimes called the ability to read the culture of the people you want to lead and influence. This is ‘the language of the people’: their idiom, style, music, level of formal or ‘street’ education, their humor, employment, their entertainment, etc. Over time this changes.  This is all crucial to communicating the story and motivating people to participate in developing the organization.

5. Provide direct leadership. Politicians are direct leaders and their ability to speak directly to the ordinary voters is crucial to their success. Providing hands-on direct development of an organization is direct leadership. Influence may also be exercised through indirect leadership, which Gardner sometimes refers to as creative leadership. This can be exercised through the influence of symbolic creative work. Artistic works like the novels of Solzhenitsyn who had no direct political role but contributed significantly to the unraveling of the Soviet Unions moral credibility. Some leaders can combine both. Vaclav Havel who led the Czech Republic out of Soviet control at a critical time was a poet and a direct leader whose poetry was very influential with the Czech people. Academic research can also produce indirect leadership like Sir Mc Farlen Burnett’s scientific research work. Creative academic leadership is often confined to a particular sphere of activity.

6. Understand and make use of new and developing technology without being lost in technical detail and expertise. For example in an earlier period in churches it was sound systems, copying machines, slide and movie film and overhead projectors, later computers, data projectors, DVD, now web based communication systems like email, face book, twitter etc.


The nature of the ‘story’.

An interesting issue that Gardner raises is how inclusive or exclusive the leaders ‘story’ will be. He makes the point that most effective leaders have an inclusive story. They help people to feel part of a broader community or movement. But inclusive leaders will eventually be challenged by some group or faction who feel that their story is the correct one and the leaders story is not pure enough or is compromised. It is also true that for any organization or movement or church to have cohesion and momentum it must have a limit to its inclusiveness, or to put it another way its story must also have an attractive distinctiveness.  Gardner makes the point that the fascist leaders of the WW 2 period were powerful and influential because of their exclusive stories, eg: Hitler’s ideas of the purity and superiority of the German race. Religious cult leaders also tell exclusive stories. While they are powerful they can also be enormously destructive. There is of course a big difference between extreme exclusive stories and those with a healthy and constructive distinctiveness. Every reformer has a distinctive story or moral call that excludes something.

Space for reflection

Gardner’s study also shows the importance of space for reflection for the direct leader. He calls this retreat to the mountain top. Without this the direct leader can loose the big picture or the sense of vision or the moral imperative energizing them and their sense of ‘agency’, that, they are an agent of change and influence. It also enables the regaining of perspective and awareness of change.

Early signs

In an examination of the early lives of effective leaders (or as he expresses it Exemplary leaders), he shows that often while still young and inexperienced they were willing to challenge the leadership above them, often to their disadvantage. Established leaders of organizations should be sensitive to this as they can thwart the potential talent because they challenge the status quo and don’t toe the line. They also show early on skill in speaking, posses a general energy and resourcefulness, they also have a concern for moral issues. (3)

This book is a rich mine of  insights on leadership and will repay the time spent in reading it for anyone involved in the selection and development of leaders.

References: (1) Basic Books 1995  (2) page 302  (3) pages 284-290

My ten top leadership books.

1.‘Leading minds. An anatomy of leadership’ by Howard Gardner, Basic Books, 1995

2.‘Leading at the Edge- Leadership lessons from the extraordinary saga of Shackelton’s  Antarctic Expedition’ by Dennis N.T. Perkins, AMACON, 2000.

3. ‘Intelligent Leadership’  by Alistair Mant, Allen &Unwin.1997

4. ‘Leaders on Leadership’ by George Barna, Regal, 1997

5. ‘Harvard Business Review on The Mind of the Leader’, edited articles from the H.B.R Harvard Business School Press,2005

6. ‘Spiritual Leadership’ by J Oswald Sanders, Moody Publishers 2003

7. ‘Identifying and Developing Leaders’ by Ian Jagelman, Open Book, 2003

8. ‘Finishing Strong’ by Steve Farrar, Multnomah, 1995

9. ‘On Becoming a leader’ by Warren Bennis, Addison Wesley, 1989.

10. ‘Hiring Strategies for Success’ by Ken Byrne, Wright Books 1990

Peter Corney.

  • Sally Hodgson

    Very interesting. Wonder though if “persuasive” is the right word for a Christian context, lest it gets confused with manipulation. Not that being persausive is a bad thing in itself. But thought the word encouraging might be better for a Christian context. Also found it interesting the quite a few of your top ten books on leadership appear to be secular!

  • Peter Corney

    Thanks Sally for your comment. What I mean is the ability to communicate a message that is clear and convincing. Ceratinly leaders should not be manipulative but transparent and honest in their communication. They should also as you say be encouraging. The reason there are a lot of secular leadership books on my list is that they are often more insightful and practical than a lot of Christian ones! Also remember all truth is God’s truth – the doctrine of ‘common grace’.