Leadership is a matter of intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage, and sternness.Sun Tzu
This year has tested leaders at all levels in ways they never could have imagined. A pandemic spawning an economic crisis, coupled with widespread social unrest. One has to wonder if a plague of frogs is next!
Effective leadership is essential for community resilience. While we all recognize what a leader should do, we often overlook what a leader should be – those attributes necessary for effective leadership. The Art of War – the two millenium old classic Chinese treatise on war by Sun Tzu – has much to offer us as we try to understand what is needed for effective community leadership.
According to Sun Tzu, a successful leader must have the five traits listed above. In the context of a community and its resilience, these traits might be better described as follows.
Intelligence. Intelligence in leadership means that the leader knows how to clearly identify an objective, communicate it, plan to achieve it and then mobilize the resources needed to actually achieve the objective. This implies that an intelligent community leader recognizes when the community must adapt to changing circumstances. The intelligent leader is able to articulate that need and initiate the planning effort needed to affect change. The efforts of city leaders in southeast Florida to adapt to rising seas are good examples.
Trustworthiness. A trustworthy leader is recognized by the community as a person of integrity. Thus, the community believes that the leader will carry out promised actions, and will provide support to the rest of the community to implement action plans. Such a leader is thus able to communicate more effectively to the larger community, because even unpopular messages are more likely to be heard. The public’s trust in Mayor Latoya Cantrell has played an important role in both limiting the coronavirus death toll in New Orleans, and in dampening the potential for violence.
Humaneness. A humane leader cares about the community, and that caring is manifested in actions. The community believes that the leader “feels their pain,” and therefore is more likely to follow where the leader is going. This recognized innate humaneness of the leader is especially important when trying to reconcile different factions within the community. Since mobilizing human and social capital is so important for action, humaneness
Courage. A leader must have the courage to persevere even when obstacles are encountered. In essence, the courage needed by an effective leader is born of a certain innate confidence in one’s own integrity and intelligence – the leader believes the community is on the right course.
Sternness. By “sternness,” Sun Tzu means a sort of rigorous fairness. Rewards and punishments are strictly based on actions, not the person acting. Ultimately, this sternness is the result of a sort of self-discipline in which the leader may have favorites but does not favor them. It inherently results in leadership that holds itself responsible, and does not fear to hold others accountable for their actions.
Many of the commenters on The Art of War have stressed the danger of valuing one of these above the others. For example, excessive humaneness (think empathy) can lead to either weakness or paralysis; courage to foolhardiness. Excessive sternness can lead to cruelty; intelligence to arrogance. Leaders thus should strive for an Aristotelian balance of these attributes.
The transformation of Charlotte, NC, from a textiles to a financial center illustrates the importance of several of these leadership traits. Up until the 1970’s, Charlotte had been one of the leading centers for the textile industry in the country. The heads of two of the largest banks in North Carolina and the head of Duke Power recognized that the demise of that industry threatened Charlotte’s vitality. All three were embedded in the community, and had earned its trust. All three passionately cared about Charlotte’s future, and their their caring about the city’s future was widely recognized by the public. Acting largely independently of city and county governments, these three formed an organization aimed at helping Charlotte adapt to these changing conditions. As plans were developed, these three spearheaded the transformational effort. They helped rebuild some of the poorest sections of the city (encountering opposition because many of these were predominately black), courageously turning what had been almost slums into desirable neighborhoods. In spite of criticism and carping, these three eventually transformed Charlotte into what has become the second largest financial center in the country.
Many of our communities and our country are embroiled in painful and often rancorous debates about racism, inequality and our future. Effective leadership is essential if we are to emerge from the acrimony and build the better future we all want. Sun Tzu’s wisdom can point us toward those leaders likely to be effective. Leaders who have the intelligence to see the problems and to recognize real solutions. Leaders with the recognized trustworthiness and passion to move the community forward. Leaders who care enough and are courageous enough to enlist the entire community; yet disciplined enough to hold themselves and everyone else accountable.