14/01/2013 09:43 GMT | Updated 15/03/2013 05:12 GMT

What makes leaders great?

A friend of mine studied with the legendary composition teacher, Nadia Boulanger. Boulanger had taught Aaron Copland, Philip Glass and illustrious others and was herself a a remarkable musician. She was the first woman to conduct the BBC Symphony and the New York Philharmonic.

Sitting together at the piano in her Paris apartment, Boulanger once had my friend play passages from a Beethoven sonata, pushing him repeatedly to explain Beethoven's greatness. My friend analyzed the exposition and transition, the rapid changes in tone and dynamic, the animated arpeggios. Technical detail after detail. Each and every time, though, he came up short trying to explain what made this particular piece of music great. Boulanger finally weighed in, "Of course, you can't explain it."

We're wired to try to explain everything. This includes the essence of great leadership, a matter which has been debated at least since the time of Plato. Today business schools are crammed full of courses on the topic. There is an industry of consultants out there peddling their theories about strategy, values, culture, adaptation, and inspiration. The U.S. military does situational training called "staff rides." The concept comes from the 19th century when the German army would send its general staff to battle fields, where officers would role play in order to learn decision-making, tactics and leadership. 

Anyone who has ever run anything - national or local, commercial or non-profit, big or small - has had to think about leadership. In my own dabbling in the subject, I've come to believe that there are two crucial, and frequently overlooked characteristics of leadership: service and humility. Not that I'm particularly good at either, but I'm convinced both bear constantly keeping in mind.

My first meaningful encounter with the idea of so-called servant leadership was when I taught at a Jesuit high school in Washington, D.C. The President of Gonzaga College High School, Bernard J. Dooley, S.J., was the epitome. Dooley was a slender, urbane, chain smoking Catholic priest, a student of philosophy and theology who held a doctorate in education. He lorded over no one. His days were spent, as best I could tell, simply trying to help people. It might have been assisting an inner city parent with a legal or financial issue. Or raising money for his friend Horace McKenna, a cheerful Jesuit colleague who fed the neighborhood's poor at the school church's soup kitchen. Pretty simple stuff. I recall students, parents and faculty being pretty seriously influenced, and inspired.

I also started to learn at that time about humility. Father McKenna would cut his clerical collar out of a plastic clorox bottle, to save a few pennies for his cause, helping the poor. I knew this because a teaching colleague, a young Jesuit, told me. Horace would have been embarrassed  to have anyone know of his little trick. Nor would he have ever judged Father Dooley for his love of a good scotch, or fresh crab cakes at an ocean front condo at the beach. I suppose I was witnessing lessons in humility and tolerance in those days.

Being humble does not mean you lack self-confidence. Running anything requires force of personalty, the gumption to swim against the stream and willingness to forgo popularity. Humility means, among other things, knowing what you don't know. Humility enables you to discover your blind spots (we all have them); and to accept and learn from your mistakes. 

All easier said than done. I found a leadership coach to help (torture) me with these things, a fellow named John Dame, who has a perfectly respectable firm ( and an exceptionally rare and important gift: remarkable objectivity and a talent for perfect candour, delivered in such a way that you're not left feeling utterly defeated. If you've ever worked with a good fitness trainer, you get the idea.

To help engender humility, by the way, never forget the advice of one of the most famous leadership coaches of all time. Machiavelli warned that flatterers are to be avoided at all costs. 

I won't suggest that either a spirit of service or sense of humility lead to great leadership. I'm simply raising the question whether leaders can become great without these fundamentals.

I like what Nadia Boulanger had to say about music:

"I can tell whether a piece is well-made or not, and I believe that there are conditions without which masterpieces cannot be achieved. But I also believe that what defines a masterpiece cannot be pinned down. I won't say that the criterion for a masterpiece does not exist. I just don't know."

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