why does it matter: Reflections on practical leadership
John A. White
Greenleaf Book Group Press (Oct 2022)
How and why great leaders achieve “admirable results, with exemplary character”
Christopher Lofgren cites Ahmed Yehia’s comment on great leadership in the Foreword to this book in which John White explains why practical leadership is important, especially in today’s world. The material in the book is based on a course he taught, “Leadership Principles and Practices,” at the University of Arkansas.
Briefly, it was a course for seniors and graduates that met for three hours once a week for a sixteen-week semester. Guest leaders met with the class during the first half of each period. “The rest of the time was spent in discussions of assigned books on leadership and lessons from my leadership journey. Teaching the leadership course turned out to be the highlight of my fifty-six-year career as an educator and contributed to receiving the university’s highest teaching award.”
White has had a pretty impressive career as a leader in a number of different very demanding positions: Chancellor of the University of Arkansas; Dean of the Georgia Tech School of Engineering; co-founder of SysteCon, an engineering consulting firm; NSF Engineering Directorate leadership; member of the boards of directors of Eastman Chemical Company, JB Hunt Transport Services, Logility, Motorola, Motorola Solutions, and Russell Corporation; and director of the American Association of Engineering Societies, the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers, the National GEM Consortium, the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award Foundation, the Presidents’ Council of the Research Association of Southeastern Universities, and the Southeastern Conference. His bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees are from the University of Arkansas, Virginia Tech, and Ohio State University, respectively. He has honorary doctorates from George Washington University and Katholieke University of Leuven in Belgium. Quite a career in fact.
To paraphrase Peter Drucker, all organizations need leaders who do the right thing. That really matters and so does having managers who get it right. White agrees with Yehia’s emphasis on exemplary character. I can easily think of several dozen high-impact leaders throughout history whose wickedness is incalculable. Hitler and Stalin, for example. White is uniquely qualified to review the changes in how practical, principle-based leadership has been identified and measured over the years, especially in the business world. Opinions are divided, sometimes sharply divided, on what the characteristics of a practical leader are (ie, results-oriented and purpose-oriented) and who best embodies them. Readers may not always agree with White’s views, but I think they will agree that those views, based on decades of real-world experience, deserve careful consideration.
I envy those who have taken John White’s “Principles and Practices of Leadership” course at the University of Arkansas, as well as those (including his students) who have had countless conversations with him about leaders and followers, not just in the world of business but also in any other human enterprise.
Before ending this brief comment, I dare to share my favorite passage in Lao-tzu’s book. Tao Te Ching:
“Learn from the people
plan with the people
start with what they have
Build on what they know
of the best leaders
When the task is done
people will comment
We have done it ourselves.”
Seen as gardeners, the best leaders “grow” others who will also become practical and principled leaders, oriented to results and objectives. In today’s world, which is more volatile, more uncertain, more complex and more ambiguous than any previous time I can remember, that’s what REALLY matters.