An Expert Talk About Principled Leadership

In the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Profiles in Courage, attributed to John F. Kennedy but likely written by his staff, the authors single out Edmund Ross, a Republican Senator from Kansas, for a most unpopular decision.

Ross broke with his party and cast the decisive vote against the conviction of President Andrew Johnson, allowing him to complete the term of President that he inherited upon Abraham Lincoln’s death.

A friend wrote, “In making [that] decision, you knew perfectly well that it could consign you to private life and the vehement denunciation of almost all your party friends.”

By voting against political expediency, Ross said, his goal was to preserve the rule of law and uphold the Constitution, regardless of its implications for his political career. Ross was defeated for re-election to the United States Senate.

Was this one of the great examples of principled leadership in American politics?

Dr. David Greenburg, program director and associate professor of Engineering Leadership and Program Management in The Citadel’s School of Engineering, and a retired Lt. Colonel in the Marine Corps teaches courses on leadership. He believes that leadership is at once both more mundane and profound than most people understand it.

“Leadership comprises [of] applying knowledge, expertise, and experience to influence others to accomplish a task, knowing that you never really have enough resources for the task,” he said.

The most valuable resource in that equation is people. Leaders know how to employ human resources to get the job done.

Dr. Greenburg teaches his graduate students, who take their classes at the Lowcountry Graduate Center, that leaders always exhibit the following characteristics:

  • Unwavering honesty and ethical action
  • Technical expertise in the area in question
  • The ability to communicate orally and in writing to multiple audiences
  • Objectivity and professionalism, to gather as much information as possible and make decisions based on the facts
  • A vision of where they are leading their organization, a firm understanding of the goals and objectives, and the path needed to achieve them.
  • An inclination to share praise for success and ability to accept responsibility for failures.

Dr. Greenburg notes that some great leaders in history have nonetheless been bad people. Hitler, Stalin, and Idi Amin all convinced people to help them achieve their goals. Principled leadership, which is a cornerstone of education at The Citadel, involves working towards the greater good with integrity.

Leadership comes in many styles, Greenburg remarks, and can even be found in followers.  Anyone exerting their influence to get the job done is demonstrating leadership.

Leadership looks different depending on the situation too. “We employ different techniques in different situations to reach different goals.”

For example, when time is limited, and there is a lot of risks involved, a leader must be more authoritarian. With more time and fewer risks, the leader can solicit many opinions, gather more data, and allow a more democratic decision-making process.

We look to our leaders to make the best decisions possible given the circumstances, weighing present and future considerations. “You always want to identify potential risk, multiply that by its probability of occurrence, and the possible cost before making a decision,” Dr. Greenburg states.

Dr. Greenburg believes the state of leadership in those who run the country today is roughly a reflection of the state of leadership everywhere else. Although examples of dishonesty; lack of expertise, objectivity, and professionalism; and finger-pointing make the news, many textbook examples of leadership are taking place in the shadows every day. “There is a lot of good, positive leadership out there,” Dr. Greenburg says.