Leadership: It Ought To Be Easy
At the time of this presentation, Harry C. Stonecipher was president and chief
executive officer of McDonnell Douglas Corporation. With the merger of Boeing and
McDonnell Douglas, he became president and chief operating officer of Boeing Company. His
remarks were presented as the Inaugural Lecture of the George M. Low Lecture Series in
Houston on April 29, 1997.
When George Abbey asked me to deliver the first in the George M. Low series of lectures
on the topic of leadership, I felt greatly honored and deeply humbled.
The late George Low was NASA's first chief of manned space flight and he chaired a
special committee that formulated the original plans for the Apollo lunar landings. More
than that, he was the deputy director here at Johnson Space Center. George Low was not
just a great technical manager, although he was certainly that; he was also, in the
fullest sense of the word, a real leader.
We can always recognize a leader when we see one, but I have yet to see a really good
definition of what leadership really is and where it comes from. There is, however, no
shortage of theories on the topic.
There is an ancient school of thought that holds that leadership comes from divine
inspiration. In the epic poems of Homer and Virgil, the hero is always the favorite of a
particular god or goddess, who lends him heightened powers at crucial points in the story.
Divinely inspired, the hero speaks with "winged words," and often takes on a
singularly awesome appearance.
There is, indeed, as Homer reminds us, an inspirational side to leadership. All of us
can think of certain leaders, who, in the midst of crisis, have seemed as though they
really were larger-than-life. And, certainly, one of the key aspects of leadership
consists of persuading ordinary people to perform in extraordinary ways.
But I reject the idea that leadership is a totally abnormal or exceptional quality. I
believe that leadership, to a large degree, is a learned behavior, and that it is within
the grasp of the many, and not just the few.
If you want to learn leadership, a good place to begin is in studying others who have
mastered the art. One of my personal heroes has always been Harry S. Truman the president
who kept a plaque on his desk saying "the buck stops here."
Truman's life stands as proof that a seemingly ordinary person may be more capable of
carrying the mantel of great leadership upon his shoulders than any one of the best and
brightest who went to the finest schools and matriculated into positions of early
responsibility and authority. Truman had neither the eloquence of a Churchill nor the good
looks and charm of a John Kennedy. While he was certainly very bright, nobody ever accused
Truman of having a polished presence. To his friends and the world he was just plain ol'
Harry--a name I have always liked.
His family was too poor to send him to college, so Truman went to work on the family
farm outside Kansas City, and stayed there until his early thirties. The great turning
point in his life was World War I.
Wanting desperately to serve, Truman rejoined the National Guard when he was 33 years
old, two years beyond the age limit for the draft. His fellow guardsmen must have sensed
something special in him. At that time, officers of the guard were still being chosen by
the men. Truman was elected first lieutenant--the first post to which he was ever elected
even though he was a farmer with no connections of any kind.
Soon after arriving in Europe in the summer of 1917, the untried and untested Truman
was put in charge of Battery D of the 2nd battalion of the 129th Field Artillery.
"Dizzy D," as it was called, was a notoriously rowdy group of about 200
The men gave Harry all kinds of hell on his first day in command. They stampeded their
horses. They brawled in the barracks. They even gave him a Bronx cheer. As Truman would
later recall, the task of taking command was more frightening than anything he later
encountered in heavy combat.
Nevertheless, he acted swiftly and decisively. The following morning, he publicly
"busted" several non-commissioned officers, beginning with the First Sergeant.
Then he called the other non-commissioned officers into his tent and told them: "I
didn't come over here to get along with you. You've got to get along with me. And if there
are any of you who can't, speak up right now and I'll bust you back right now." After
that, as Truman recalled, "we got along." More than that, Truman soon turned one
of the worst batteries in the regiment into one of the best.
Tough when he had to be, Truman emanated a genuine warmth and concern for his men. In
turn, he inspired intense loyalty from those who knew him best, including the men he led
into battle. "You soldier for me," he told them, "and I'll soldier for
Clearly, Truman was, if not a born leader, then a highly instinctive one. He
intuitively grasped one of the cardinal principles of leadership, which is the importance,
in a new situation, of not wasting any time in demonstrating your determination to lead in
a certain way and in a certain direction.
In each new assignment I have undertaken, I have always found that the first 5 minutes,
and then the first 5 days and the first 100 days, are critically important. If you cannot
get it right from the start--or very near the start--your chances of overcoming the
existing internal forces of inertia, and of active resistance to change, are close to
Frankly, one of the great dangers that the leader must guard against in a new situation
is an excess of compassion for people who are determined to go on doing the same old
things in the same old way. If you have to "bust" a recalcitrant First Sergeant,
it's a whole lot better, for everyone concerned, to do it sooner instead of later. I know,
from having waited too long once or twice in my own career.
Leadership isn't meant to be hard. It ought to be easy.
Really, there are only three or four things a leader has to do. First, he determines
the main goals and vision and takes the lead in communicating them to others. Next is the
selection and motivation of people. Last, he takes personal responsibility for the major
actions or decisions that profoundly affect the entire organization.
With the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, Truman was thrown into
the whirl of great events as a wartime president in much the same way that he had been
thrown into World War I as a commander of men which is to say, with almost no formal
preparation. He had been Vice President for all of 82 days and had rarely even seen the
Nevertheless, Truman acquitted himself not only well, but superbly well in all four
areas of leadership that I have enumerated.
First, he determined and communicated a coherent vision for the United States and the
Free World. Second, he selected the great people who were needed for translating his
vision into reality. Third, he was nothing less than superb in motivating his people.
Last, he readily accepted the ultimate responsibility that was his... and his alone... for
making the most difficult and momentous decisions.
Truman only learned about the Manhattan Project after being sworn into office. A few
months later, he brought World War II to a swift conclusion by his historic decision to
use the first atomic bombs.
In seven and a half years as president, Truman determined the shape of things to come
for a generation or more--launching the European recovery with the Marshall Plan,
championing civil rights legislation, fighting a limited but successful war in Korea, and
re-girding the nation's military establishment to face the long, hard challenge of the
In doing all those things, Truman had plenty of help. He surrounded himself with
brilliant and strong-minded people.
Not only did Truman have a knack for picking the right people, but he was a great
motivator--always giving credit to his subordinates. In his typically self-effacing way,
he called Secretary of State George Marshall "a tower of strength and common
sense," and said, "I am surely lucky to have his friendship and support."
Truman's habit of passing out compliments continued into his retirement years in
Independence, Missouri. As the pastor of a local church recalled, he would usually stop in
the middle of his morning walks to address a few remarks to a large ginkgo tree. What did
the President say? As the pastor recalled, he would tell the tree, "You're doing a
I said that leadership is easy. To my way of thinking, the better you are, the easier
When you come into a new organization as the leader, the selection of people is your
first and most important challenge. If you don't already have the right people in the
right spots, then there are only two options: Either you get the people to change, or you
change the people.
After that, the motivation of people becomes the more important task. And the key to
leadership in this area lies not in dominating others, but in eliciting their cooperation
and in setting them free to do their jobs with a minimum of restraints to their creativity
The best and truest leader is the one who leads with the lightest touch. As a rule of
thumb, the fewer decisions you make, the more powerful and effective your organization
If you are paying people to do a job, you ought to assume they are perfectly capable of
doing it. Sometimes people in my organization... very capable people... will come to me
with a problem or dilemma. My practice is to let them talk and, at intervals of every
three minutes or so, to ask them: "What would you like to do?" After doing this
for a little while, you can usually get the person who came in with the problem to come up
with the solution. And it will be a real solution... not something that was arbitrarily
imposed from above.
At the outset of this talk, I expressed the opinion that leadership, in large measure,
is a learned behavior, and that it is within the grasp of the many, and not just the few.
I chose Harry Truman as a role model because he was in the words of one newspaper
columnist "a certifiable member of the human race."
Now I would like to add an important caveat. It is not true that everyone in
this world is cut out to be a leader. Some people aren't, and that includes some
extremely gifted and intelligent people. Most especially, it includes some extremely
In my experience, people who are consumed by a need for power are the least suited of
all to act in a leadership capacity. Everything in their nature conspires against the
effective use of the very thing they crave. They make hard work of leadership on
themselves, and everyone around them, by being arrogant, overbearing and, at the end of
the day, totally isolated.
I have often thought of leadership as a calling, in much the same way that teaching is
In every organization, there are people who will look for clever and devious ways of
making their ascent into positions of authority. Usually they are seen for what they are.
In healthy organizations, the process by which people become recognized as leaders is
Normally, it starts with making an outstanding individual contribution to a project,
and then being entrusted with additional responsibility, which includes the management of
others. Some people--managers by nature and training--will do that competently. A few will
discover a true calling in being able to work with others in such a way as to elevate the
expectations and performance of an entire group. These of course are your leaders. And
they will be generally recognized as such by their peers and subordinates before it comes
to the attention of their superiors.
In fact, the person who begins to act as a leader may be the last to recognize it. I
doubt that Truman saw anything remarkable in his own behavior as an Army captain in World
War I. Certainly, it was nothing he bragged about or called attention to.
Upon mature reflection, however, even Truman was forced to recognize that he had, in
fact, been preparing himself for the task of leadership from the time he was a small boy.
Like every leader I have ever known, Truman was fascinated by the topic of leadership.
When Truman spoke of presidents past, it was in highly personal tones... as if he had
spent his entire life in their company. And, in a way, he had. History was his passion
from earliest youth. He read voraciously, and he read always with a sense of purpose.
As he himself commented: "Reading history, to me, was far more than a romantic
adventure. It was solid instruction and wise teaching which I somehow felt I wanted and
needed." He told one interviewer: "The only new thing in the world is the
history you don't know."
So great was his love of history that Truman told one of his aides in the White House
that he would like to have been a history teacher.
"Rather teach it than make it?" the aide asked.
"Yes, I think so," Truman replied. "It would be not nearly so much
I think this is one instance where Truman may be accused of exaggeration. As I have
tried to indicate in my remarks today, a great deal of the art of leadership lies in the
lightness of its application. It ought to be easy. After determining the goals and vision,
and communicating them to others, the job of the leader is to facilitate their attainment
through the selection and motivation of others.
That is what Harry Truman did. And that is what all of the rest of us do who are
serious about leadership.
Copyright © 1998 The Executive Speaker® Company