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May 23, 2019 | by M. Robert Weidner, III

How Leadership Emerges

“Never surrender opportunity for security.” – Branch Rickey

This month (May 7) was the anniversary of French President Emanuel Macron’s landslide victory over Marine Le Pen. While 66 percent of the electorate voted for Macron in 2017, Macron’s poll numbers turned south after the government raised taxes on pensioners. A single event, though – the April 15 Notre Dame fire – has helped elevate Macron’s approval ratings. Six in 10 French residents believe Macron handled the tragedy well.

This improvement should make us ask: does a moment make a leader, or does a leader make a moment?

The answer is: both.

As leadership consultant John Baldoni noted in The Harvard Business Review, “The measure of a leader is often tested during a crisis.” In these instances, observers want to know whomever in charge is present, and helping.

To illustrate, recall a single American president: George W. Bush. In a Gallup poll taken days before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, only half of Americans approved of the job President Bush was doing. That mark improved 35 points by September 15. Conversely, President Bush’s approval ratings fell in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

What was the difference?

During his visit to New York City after the terrorist attacks, President Bush jumped on a pile of rubble and, literally, took a bullhorn to promise action. The event turned into one of the most iconic pictures of his tenure. The other photo many Americans remember, however, is of President Bush surveying the New Orleans devastation from Air Force One. The commander in chief not only seemed indifferent – the image gave the impression he didn’t know what to do.

In the Harvard Business Review, Baldoni presented another example. Facing record snowfall, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was criticized for not getting services to outer boroughs fast enough. (Bloomberg lived in Manhattan where snow was cleared more quickly.) In contrast, Newark Mayor Corey Booker – now New Jersey’s junior senator – not only shoveled  driveways, he delivered diapers to new parents who couldn’t get to the store.

Sometimes it takes adversity to realize how capable an individual is. In that way leaders are “made.” But as often it is leaders – through preparation and a vision that allows them to see challenges as opportunities – who shape events.

April 15, the day of the Notre Dame fire, also was the 72nd anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s major league baseball debut. Americans remember Robinson as a man who changed history – and he did. Other men might have reacted to the racism he suffered in a far less elegant way. Robinson was a leader.

As was the man who hired him, Branch Rickey.

Rickey left the St. Louis Cardinals for the Brooklyn Dodgers because he wanted more money and, as NYU professor David Oshinskey explained, “Rickey had a plan to revolutionize the game, and St. Louis, a segregated city, offered no hope for its success.”

Rickey’s plan was integration, and he chose Brooklyn wisely. While baseball fans in other parts of the country verbally abused Robinson, Brooklyn, Oshinskey explained, then was “a borough of immigrant enclaves.” It “welcomed” Robinson. Within a decade of Robinson’s debut, the Dodgers had a starting lineup with four African Americans.

Rickey’s choice of Robinson also was deliberate. As this article explains, Rickey “compiled careful scouting reports about Jackie’s core as a man, not just his skills as a ballplayer.” Rickey knew Robinson could endure the abuse. Without Ricky’s “vision and persistence,” Oshinskey says, “civil rights may have taken an even slower, rougher path.”

Rickey was a trusted leader whose vision changed sports.

At MSCI’s Battle Tested Leadership Principles for Metals Executives, designed with Thayer Leader Development Group, we try to build these types of leaders.

One of the great military minds we discuss in the program is General Douglas MacArthur. Like President George W. Bush, MacArthur’s fortunes changed over time. From commanding the Southwest Pacific in World War II, he was relieved of his post in the Korean conflict. Still he is one of the most revered military leaders of the 20th century, if not U.S. history.

Why? He lived by principles. As management expert and Harvard MBA Victor Lipman explained, these principles included knowing subordinates by name and being interested in their personal welfare; acting in a way that caused others to want to follow him; delegating appropriately but doing his own work; and focusing on the task at hand, not on his relative position in an organization.

A keen strategic mind is not the only element that makes a leader. A moral mind is necessary as well.

The next generation of metals leaders hopefully will emerge, not because of fire like Macron, but because they learned how to harness the more subtle moments that have presented themselves – disruptions in technology and the supply chain, for example, or the need to adapt to a workforce that has modern demands. As Rickey said in the quotation above, steady management, isn’t enough. To truly lead, executives must find opportunities to add more value for their customers, their employees and their communities.