By Michael Willard
The only public office for which I ran was governor of West Virginia. I withdrew after a few weeks when my treasurer said we only had $1.50 in the donation jar at a local bar called Ernie’s Esquire.
I was serious, but perhaps delusional. After all, I had helped spend $13 million in John D. Rockefeller’s race for the US Senate a decade earlier. The campaign would be like climbing a mountain wearing roller skates.
The idea was hatched during a late night with friends on my live-aboard boat, rocking back and forth to Potomac River waves, watching planes fly over the Washington Monument and partaking a finger or two of decent scotch.
But, after filing at the Secretary of State’s office, I shortly changed directions and committed to managing a rather large USAID program in Eastern Europe. The Wild East was to become my home for the next 23 years.
In hindsight, I mainly coveted the river view from the governor’s mansion and the ability to attend football games in the State plane while accompanied by a phalanx of State Troopers carrying shoulder-holstered pistoles.
In other words, truth out, I have never had great power, not in terms of accumulating it, using it, or abusing it.
I have, though, often sat at the feet of the powerful in business and politics, which means I am a world class place and name dropper. It has been my life’s work as a consultant in the oft-dark arts of public relations and advertising.
Those are two generally honorable professions, requiring little overhead or textbook knowledge but sufficient off-the-cuff glibness and gab to appear knowledgable with one’s mouth in perpetual motion.
I’m talking collaboration with several European prime ministers, a US Senate Leader, various other foreign leaders, Vladimir Putin’s primary headache, Alexei Navalny; CEOs and industry chairmen, and the before mentioned Rockefeller.
Additionally, I have run and owned companies on three continents in mostly hair-raising conditions of revolutions, civil wars and outrageous lawlessness as we attempted to exercise the functions of normal and legal businesses.
While not even having the illusion of power or even a wish for it, I have collected through osmosis over a long career sufficient thoughts on the subject to write and speak with modest authority.
In doing so I have collected Willard’s Rules of Leadership and Power writ large, which are ironclad, sort of. They are rather transitional as to circumstance and replete with fortune cookie wisdom.
Like much of the advice I give as a more gentle Machiavelli in the political realm, these reality bites might not pass the test of time, but will generally suffice for a lightning bug kind of moment:
1. Power is best used when left on the shelf: This first one comes to me via President Lyndon Johnson, who I never met, from his cashiered go-to man, Bobby Baker, who I did. It’s fairly complicated.
Basically it suggests that power is best used when it is obvious the power balance is held and can be used — but for reasons of politics and manipulation, it is kept sheathed. In other words, the absence of exercising perceived power is power.
2. Powerful leaders recognize that leadership cannot be granted or assumed. Power must be given. To be given, it must be earned, most often day to day, even moment to moment. Otherwise the leader won’t have followers.
3. Powerful leaders reap what they sow. The strength at the top of an organization can be measured by the performance of stellar subordinates. Good leadership is contagious.
4. A powerful leader is an optimist. Leaders are born salespeople, whether they’re selling a product, a service — or themselves. A pessimistic salesman is an oxymoron. This has nothing to do with being charismatic — and everything to do with being convincing.
5. A powerful leader pushes down responsibility. It’s in a leader’s job portfolio to recognize the great ideas of his or her subordinates, and give those ideas visibility and peer credit. This is the principle of subsidiarity.
6. A powerful leader embraces challenges, asking “why not?” more often than “why? This is fundamental. It speaks to calculated risks, team adventure and trusting others.
7. A powerful leader believes in himself and his abilities, though not to the point of arrogance. If that line is crossed, the followers will stray.
8. A powerful leader is trusted. When the potential client is behind closed doors considering various offers, you want the dialogue to begin as follows: “Those guys had good ideas. But, most of all, I trust them to deliver.”
9. A powerful leader is constantly learning. A one-dimensional leader lacks the necessary brain inputs to develop strategy based on historical truths applied to futuristic vision.
10. A powerful leader has the innate ability to sometimes see beyond the next bend in the road. If an opinion poll is considered a snapshot in time, then a leader’s GPS should be a step ahead of the trend line.
In summary, a leader believes that “nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome”. — Dr. Samuel Johnson from way back in the Eighteenth Century.
(Photo: In background with Senate Democratic Leader Robert C. Byrd on an election night.)