Seven Observations On Leadership, Vice President Walter Mondale

Set forth below is an article by Vice President of the United States, Walter Mondale.  More than any person I’ve ever met, Mr. Mondale is perfectly positioned to opine on leadership.  His lengthy public service includes roles as Minnesota Attorney General, U.S. Senator, Vice President of the United States and U.S. Ambassador to Japan.  In these positions, he has been a remarkable leader himself and has had the opportunity to interact with leaders from the U.S. and around the world.

At the end of the article is a video of an interview we had the pleasure to conduct of Mr. Mondale.  In our discussion, Mr. Mondale expands on the ideas below and shares his insights on a wide variety of topics that touch on leadership.  We hope you enjoy his observations.

Seven Observations on Leadership

By:  Walter F. Mondale, Vice President of the United States, U.S. Ambassador to Japan

1.  Dishonesty kills.

I don’t know of anything that is more toxic to leadership than the fear that the person lacks integrity.  Lincoln once said of public esteem, which I believe is traceable to integrity, that “with it everything is possible, without it nothing is possible.”

Our founders were so concerned about the inherent weaknesses of human nature that they famously wrote (in Federalist Paper # 51), “Men are not angels. . . Therefore we need auxiliary precautions”  . … “We a need a government that can control itself.”  Thus our Constitution is at once a document of liberty (except for slaves) while also a remarkable instrument for checking and balancing power, forcing the sharing of power so that ambition in one branch of government would be balanced by the ambition of another.

The same devotion to integrity is needed in all aspects of life and thus must be found in all of our leaders, public or private.

2  Respect for others.

Leadership is not about building up one’s ego; it is about building the confidence of those he or she must lead, whatever the environment.

Employees must feel the leader’s respect; must feel that his ideas are listened to and that the leader’s efforts reflect his advice as well as the advice of others; i.e., he sees his identity in that organization.  A leader must have confidence but must avoid becoming egotistical, apparently a very hard line to respect.

3.  A leader must lead.

Serious change is always tough to achieve.  For example, how does America shape its federal budget to achieve what’s needed in a fair and responsible way?  How does Minnesota do so, for that matter?  Ditto for all kinds of other societal or business challenges.  It requires thorough understanding of the issues, careful analysis of the options, and then clear and persuasive leadership on the issues.

Too many “leaders” duck responsibility, delay the tough calls, or blame others.  When I look back on my long public career, the things I feel best about are occasions when I took on the tough issues, actually took a chance.

I also believe that a leader should accept the challenge to lead on a big issue, even if it means losing.  There are worse things than defeat, not many, but there are.  If a leader decides that, no matter what, he cannot lose, then that desperation can drive an inner weakness, even deceit, that discredits the whole purpose.  Bravery is still a noble instinct.

4.  Be a believer.

A big part of effective leadership involves understanding and really believing in your cause.  If that is not true, people will sense it.  They recognize the shallow and the insincere.  But they also sense it when a leader deeply believes in an issue and is taking that chance for something bigger than himself.  A leader, or prospective leader, will get all kinds of advice about how to speak, dress, smile, organize, . . . endlessly.  This advice should be listened to but I believe genuine deep sincerity is the key to building trust.

5.  Lead a balanced life.

Leaders, if not careful, can burn themselves up in their work.  Obsession is a serious challenge.  Family, children, friends, and the need for relaxation and exposure to life are inspiring influences.  Brandeis once said he could do twelve months work in eleven but not in twelve.  Hubert and Muriel once said that politics can cost a lot but it must never cost the family.  Obsessed people usually don’t want to hear bad news; emotionally healthy leaders encourage honesty and directness.  Emotional stability is essential.

6.  Keep leadership open and accountable.

Many CEOs, CFOs, and political and administrative leaders have been destroyed by risks that could have been anticipated and prevented.  Leaders tend to emphasize control over everything possible.  Type AAA they are called.  Our nation expects them.  Strong leaders, absolutely; unaccountable leaders, absolutely not.

Corporate boards should have independent members, truly independent.  I think independent members should pick their own outside counsel to represent them and protect them from risks to their responsibilities under the law.  Corporations hate this because they know the Board will be encouraged to be more independent and more aware of their rights and responsibilities.  Public leaders should look on an alert press as an asset to their leadership.  They don’t, but they are wrong.  Most leaders who fail are victims of a knowable scandal they were unaware of or of which they became aware after it was too late to deal with it.

There is a  pronounced tendency to protect the boss from bad news, and to look down on critics and the bearers of bad news.  A good leader will resist this tendency, will encourage candor, and will honor the whistleblower.

7.  Beware of stale leadership.

Good leaders, with time, can calcify: what was once good may lose validity as times change.  Organizations typically protect the old guard.

Some leaders can adapt, bring the next generation of leaders along with him or her; others cannot.  The good Lord planned generational change, whether welcome or not, to force that change.  A  good leader will consider the proper management of change a key part of his job; it should be managed and encouraged.  Not easy.

Dorsey & Whitney

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