6 Universal competencies of a superlative leader

President Kennedy once hosted a gathering of about 50 Nobel Prize winners at the White House, and he said, “This is probably the greatest collection of talent and human knowledge ever assembled in this place, except for when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

The contest for the most influential people in America always includes Thomas Jefferson. He was by no means flawless. No one ever is…or was. But he was arguably one of the most intelligent members of the founding fathers. Some say he was the most intelligent.

But it is not his intelligence that prompts his name’s inclusion in this piece. It is another quality. His gracious manner.

One writer discoursed at length of the relationship between the giants of the American Revolution – Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. The bickered with each other, at times questioned each other’s motives, and harbored seldom articulated jealousies of on another’s renown.

As the Republic began to take shape, its early years were indicative of the maneuverings that always accompany positions of power and its exercise. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams came to take opposing positions, but when together they remained civil.

Merrill D. Peterson, author of Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography wrote that “The whole family was charmed by the Virginian’s sparkling conversation and gracious manner.”

A study of Jefferson’s encounters with friend and foe alike reveals a common theme, Jefferson was the quintessential gentleman, treating all with grace and deference.

There is no question that Jefferson was a superlative leader and the reasons are many. But today I want to zone in on this one side of his character. Sometimes we seem to think that great people are rude, insensitive, or inconsiderate.

That is almost never the case. Superlative leaders understand that the capacity to lead is directly proportional to the ability to influence others. And they know that one can force subordinates to comply or one can enjoin their cooperation.

Jefferson knew how. For that matter so did Franklin, Adams, Washington, and many others. They fought their enemies on the battlefields with muskets and sword. Everywhere else they either won over their enemies or neutralized them with their skills of persuasion. They did not lie, did not dissemble, they did not try to bamboozle (love that word). They were civil even in dispute.

I’ve listed out 6 competencies that I think make up the concept of gentlemanly behavior found in superlative leaders. Here they are in no particular order.

1. Gentility – the word originally meant a social status, one of the gentry, a person of wealth and influence. It has come to mean a more general gracious and refined manner, the opposite of crude and boorish.

2. Likeability – Superlative leaders are not abrasive or irritating. They gather people around them because they are infinitely likeable. Affability means you are easy to talk to, welcoming, and hospitable. A likeable person is easy to get along with, they “play well” with others.

3. Stability – Jefferson did not have a short fuse. He did not have a hair trigger. For those reading on other continents, a hair trigger is when a handgun has a trigger so sensitive that you can fire it off with the smallest touch. Stable people are not volatile.

4. Responsibility – it may seem obvious, but superlative people are capable of shouldering their part of the job and they do so with the big picture in mind. They are good stewards of the tools and equipment entrusted to them but more importantly, they are good stewards of the trust invested in them.

5. Reliability – If you say you are going to do something, do it. Return phone calls, show up on time, answer emails, and keep your word. Here’s a sad number = 0. What does it mean? It is the number of books returned to me that I have loaned to pastors who swore they would return them to me. That’s right. Not even one. It seems that a toxic side-effect to power and authority is a casual attitude towards reliability. Superlative leaders never forget this key competence.

6. Resourcefulness – People of power and authority are often expected to do the impossible. They make things happen. You’ve heard the old adage – “Leaders make things happen, followers watch things happen, losers wonder what happened.” Resourceful people are smart people in that their minds are always processing information and figuring out ways to get things done. I wrote more about this which you can read here.


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