What follows started life as a well-circulated opinion piece, authored by Lee Iacocca as a summary of his and Catherine Whitney’s new book, Where Have All The Leaders Gone? (thanks to Bruce Herrington for bringing it to my attention).

In it, Iacocca provides a useful list of the character traits required of successful leaders. If you’re interested in what the architect of the K-Car, huge government loan guarantees and an ad campaign featuring himself instead of his products has to say about our current political leaders, you’ll find it here: http://www.snopes.com/politics/soapbox/iacocca.asp.

If, instead, you want his framework without a political essay attached, here are Iacocca’s alliterative “Nine Cs of Leadership.”

  • Curiosity: Leaders need to know What’s Going On Out There. Even more important, they need to need to know. No, that isn’t a typo. Curiosity is recognizing the importance of knowing What’s Going On Out There. Here in KJR-ville, we call the skill organizational listening. Those who don’t do it well are easily manipulated by their information sources. Or else they’re just ignorant.
  • Creativity: Leaders, according to Iacocca, must be able to think outside the box — to entertain unconventional notions and develop new and innovative solutions. Opinion: He’s wrong, but not badly wrong. While leaders do have to be able to think in unconventional terms and give new ideas an honest shot, finding those ideas through curiosity is more important than developing them through creativity. The best leaders are brokers of great ideas. Developing them is optional, and risks the Not Invented Here syndrome.
  • Communication: By “communication” Iacocca means telling people what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear. Again, he’s mostly right. Telling people what they need to hear instead of what they want to hear is one of the differences between leading and pandering.Add this: Effective communication is the result of planning, not blurting. It focuses on the audience’s vocabulary and cares, not the leader’s. Anything else is self-indulgence.
  • Character: In Iacocca’s book, character is knowing the difference between right and wrong and having the courage to do what’s right. Regular KJR readers know my position: Leaders must have clear values, and they must recognize that others have equally strong sets of values that differ in important respects. Values, that is, are personal, not universal, subjective rather than objective, and are therefore beliefs rather than facts.Leaders must have the character — the courage — to lead according to their values, not because they are “right” in any absolute sense, but because, as leaders, they take responsibility for their own moral code.

    They draw a clear boundary between what they will and won’t accept, on no authority beyond their own. They also have the courage to know when to allow others to act according to their own values, even when those values are different.

  • Courage: As Iacocca defines courage, it’s pretty much the same thing as character.
  • Conviction: Conviction is the fire in the belly that drives someone to accomplish uncommon and important results through force of will. Leadership is about making intentional change happen. That’s always an unlikely outcome. If you don’t care about achieving something … a lot (passionately, if you’ll excuse the soon-to-be-a-cliche adverb) … it won’t happen at all.
  • Charisma: Iacocca defines charisma as the ability to inspire, not as personal magnetism. But really, when you have conviction and the ability to communicate, the ability to inspire is automatic.
  • Competence: Thank you, thank you, thank you. KJR recently covered the same point (“Join the party,” 5/7/2007). You can lead without being competent or insisting on it in your organization. Accomplishing anything useful or sustainable is a very different matter.
  • Common sense: Oh, dear. Whether you call it common sense, good instincts, or trusting your gut, the notion is a dangerous one. Too often, “common sense” is nothing more than personal bias, and prevents the very openness to new ideas Iacocca values. What’s really necessary is a pair of essential traits that masquerade as common sense: Having the experience to understand a situation in depth, and the ability to recognize when your experience is irrelevant to what you’re facing.

Sadly, after the Nine Cs, Iacocca couldn’t resist. He added Crisis — the popular myth that this is the true test and measure of a leader.

It isn’t. Leadership is easiest in a crisis. Not easy, but easiest, because crisis provides direction, motivation, clarity, and a general willingness in others to accept leadership without all those annoying questions and challenges that arise in more relaxed situations.

It’s why bad leaders so often manufacture crises.

And, I suppose, it’s why Iacocca manufactured the K-Car and bragged about it.