Leadership Secrets From President Bill Clinton

The “Explainer in Chief” (President Bill Clinton) believes that successful leadership starts by asking the right questions. But great leaders are good listeners too. And while they forge new paths, they also build consensus and “creative networks of cooperation”.

“Explain where we are and decide where we want to go. Figure out how to get there. Get good people and trust them to do the job as long as they’re competent, realistic, and flexible when change is required. Keep score – are people better off? How, and how many? That’s my approach to leadership. I think many of the successes of my presidency were due to the fact that we began by asking the right questions: How can we build a nation and a world of shared responsibilities and shared prosperity? How can government, the private sector, and civil society work together to solve the most pressing challenges of our time? How can we appreciate and benefit from our diversity in an increasingly interdependent world?”

“I’ve gotten a lot of good advice and wish I’d taken more of it! I once asked Nelson Mandela whether, when he walked out of prison for the last time, he didn’t feel anger and hatred again for having all those years stolen. He said that, briefly, he did feel old demons rise up until he realized that if he held onto his hatred after his release, he would still be a prisoner: “I wanted to be free, and so I let it go.”

On another occasion, I asked him how he found the inner strength to do that. He said the long years of confinement had taken a terrible toll. He had been abused physically and emotionally. His marriage didn’t survive. He didn’t see his kids grow up. Then he said that one day “I realized they could take everything from me, except my mind and my heart. Those things I would have to give away. I decided not to give them away.” Then he looked at me, smiled, and said, “And neither should you.” [1]

What does leadership mean to you?

“Leadership means bringing people together in pursuit of a common cause, developing a plan to achieve it, and staying with it until the goal is achieved. If the leader holds a public or private position with other defined responsibilities, leadership also requires the ability to carry out those tasks and to respond to unforeseen problems and opportunities when they arise. It is helpful to be able to clearly articulate a vision of where you want to go, develop a realistic strategy to get there, and attract talented, committed people with a wide variety of knowledge, perspectives, and skills to do what needs to be done. In the modern world, I believe lasting positive results are more likely to occur when leaders practice inclusion and cooperation rather than authoritarian unilateralism. Even those who lead the way don’t have all the answers.”

What attributes do leaders share?

“Steadfastness in pursuit of a goal, flexibility in determining how best to achieve it. The courage to make a hard decision, and the confidence to stay with it and explain it. The common sense to listen to others and involve them. And the strength to admit it when you make a mistake or when a given policy is not working. You have to be able to trust others, and trust your instincts as well as your intellect. Finally, if the objective is to get something done on a matter that is both important and controversial, you have to be able to compromise as well as know the lines you can’t cross.” [2]