Learning From Leaders - An Interview with
Robert Delaney on Leadership

by Marie J. Kane

Robert Delaney has been an international diplomat and an officer in the US Navy. He has served as assistant director of the US Information Agency in Washington and been an international consultant and advisor to the Departments of Defense and Transportation, NASA, and major corporations. He currently conducts workshops for government officials and corporate managers on how to survive in Washington and how to deal with the modern media. He's the author of 8 books and a frequent commentator on national public radio as well as appearing on public television and network stations and writing a regular column. His latest book is entitled The Fourth Estate: The Impact of Mass Communication on Decision-Making (January 2001 from the US Government Printing Office).

MJK: In your opinion what's the crucial difference between leadership and management?

ROBERT DELANEY: It's not an easy question to answer because we tend to oversimplify what leadership is and what leadership should be. It goes back to a set of philosophical and personality attributes that you bring to life. Management is process. Leadership is vision. Leadership is part personality, part vision, part character, and an immense effort and progression through proper education. I don't equate leadership with material success. The object of management is success, usually in a monetary sense or in the ego gratifying sense, which is probably a negative. To create a leader, we start with education. History and literature and philosophy are the building blocks of greatness because it gives you an appreciation of the past, a sweep of the present, and your own peculiar insights into the future. You must have a worldview to be a great leader.

The leaders I have known have all been visionaries, some outrageously so and as a result got nowhere. But they had the ability to conceptualize, to look out there and say this is the way it's going to be and potentially to take you there. Whether they did or not is another story. Leaders will lay down a program and say now you carry it out. Every leader I can think of is excellent at delegating. That has two purposes: it keeps his mind up there and it keeps him uncluttered and that's terribly important. Most managers who are successful think they're leaders, but in our peculiar and particular society at this time we do not put a premium on leadership. We put a premium on successful management. We're short term/quarterly P & L oriented and board of directors oriented and that forces some potential leaders to give leadership up as a lost cause because it's not going to be recompensed. So they zero in on the management process and control. Leadership in a sense deplores control because it hems you in. You see this most frequently in military leaders. Take for example U. S. Grant who was a terrible president. He was a genius as a military leader because he had vision, but he couldn't cope with the day-to-day stuff of being president. There are today in our society, as I see it, very few leaders in part because of what can happen to a leader which is that you become overly ambitious and power mad. Leaders are committed to whatever it is they're leading toward, that ideal, that vision, that concept whether for good or bad. Hitler and Stalin, for example, were leaders.

MJK: Let's talk about traits of good or even great leaders starting with the six I have explored with other interviewees in prior articles: Vision, Passion, Integrity, Authenticity, Wisdom and Courage.

ROBERT DELANEY: I don't see how you can be a leader without passion. You have to believe in something and you have to believe in it desperately enough to die for it. You transmit passion. Vision, the ability to see it clearly enough to say that is my cause and I will get out in front of it and lead it to where I think it should go is critical. Vision allows you to think great thoughts. Let me dwell on that point. I think vision should go counter corporate culture. Managers don't like unitary players for a lot of reasons, but they dislike them intensely in corporate situations because they're a threat. In fact if you look around our society today the business leaders control corporations, but they have very little to do with running them. Their job is to think strategic planning, vision, and the culmination of years of experience, which I would equate, I suppose, with wisdom. They don't come to work at 9 o'clock in the morning and write memos. That just isn't it. That was one of Yeltsin's problems, as compared for example to Gorbachev who turned out to be a leader in an extraordinarily bizarre scenario. He actually gave up the Soviet Union because he believed it had no future and he took them there. Yeltsin was like a good colonel or brigadier general. He took care of details and even that not very well given his personal problems. Courage is important for a leader to be able to carry out the passion and the vision. The courage to say "I believe in this strongly enough that no matter what you do to me that isn't going stop me". That can be moral courage, intellectual courage or physical courage. People tend to think in terms of physical courage, but actually in my pecking order that would be the last item. Moral courage would come first, intellectual courage second and physical courage last. I think wisdom is the ability to see based upon what you've done or observing the experience of others. Authenticity is important because you've got to be creditable and real. You can't be a leader if they're wondering whether you're real or not. Integrity and authenticity are linked really. Integrity comes first. Do you have a moral core? Do you live by that core? Is it evident in your life?

MJK: Let's talk a little bit more about wisdom. Do you believe there's such a thing as intuition, instinct or connection with something higher that is something that's other than the sum of your life experience?

ROBERT DELANEY: Yes, absolutely, it's a thing in the gut that doesn't guarantee success, but is usually a right instinct. The other thing I believe that would be paired with wisdom is intellectual development. A man or woman who doesn't read is not a wise person. Wisdom also comes from observing, experiencing, reading, and thinking. That is the curse of television. It takes away the critical faculty of thought and leaves you with a searing emotional experience of short duration and this is very bad. But all of this brings up another leader trait and that is awareness. You've got to be aware of the contemporary scene because if you're not you can be sand bagged. One of the big problems in any corporate culture is exactly that. You get to looking in the wrong direction. It's the person who understands all levels in an organization and remains aware of them, whether corporate or government, who stands a much better chance of surviving to lead. I'd add to this list two other considerations. One is culture and the other is environment and I don't mean ozone level. A leader generally emerges out of his culture as a result of an environmental set of circumstances and what the culture is asking for and needing at that time. As a result of all this leaders usually have an exquisite sense of timing that most people don't have. It gets back to your gut, to the feeling or instinct.

MJK: How are leaders developed in your opinion?

ROBERT DELANEY: The most extreme situation you can find where you test leadership is of course in war. War produces a peculiar brand of leader - instant leadership. The military probably has the best system for training leaders and bringing leadership qualities out of people who don't realize they have it. They do it under created stress and emergency and it works. If you employed that in corporate America the courts would be clogged because of complaints and this is dangerous. What's happening is we are not only not developing and uncovering leaders, we are systematically driving out of our society those people who might easily be the leaders of tomorrow. It's sad. I think in the societal sense that's a consideration we need to think about.

MJK: Let's talk about spirit or heart or soul. Is this important to a company or a country and, if it is, what's a leader have to do with it? What is the role of the leader in creating and nurturing it?

ROBERT DELANEY: That's a very interesting question. Yes, it is important. The easiest way for the leader to create this is that he has it personally. He reflects it by his passion, by being an observable role model, and by where he's leading you. You sense it.

MJK: I see people in organizations who are hopeless and in pain because their lives don't really have meaning and yet the nature of man to is seek meaning and given the hours people spend at work that's one place they look for it.

ROBERT DELANEY: Yes, and often corporations and their objectives don't provide that meaning. Sell widgets? Who wants to sell widgets? Where is my satisfaction, my soul satisfaction? Give me an issue. Don't give me a widget.

MJK: What do you think are the biggest challenges leaders face today and how can they go about addressing them?

ROBERT DELANEY: I think personally the biggest problem leaders face today is to have their voice heard above the mediocrity, the rumblings of self-satisfaction and the lack of logical thought that is pervasive. They first have to beat their way out of the paper bag which is gonna take considerable courage because there's so much noise in corporate America that tends to automatically defeat either the vision or the personality of an emerging leader. And they dearly love to get rid of them. He's got to be able to sustain himself through that initial breakout phase. He's got to have a clear message. He's got to understand himself. You'll see this unfold in the political arena more often than you will in the business arena, particularly if there is an emergency.

MJK: Can you give me an example?

ROBERT DELANEY: In the Navy between Pearl Harbor and one year later every submarine commander in the Pacific was either removed for cause or was dead. The reason was that they were managers, not leaders. They were doing the bureaucratic thing in the peacetime Navy that was not the leadership needed in wartime. How did they save a leader like George Patton in peacetime between WWI and WWII? The Army knew they had a fighter in him, but they knew in peacetime he'd be killed. So, for 9 years he was Captain of the U.S. Equestrian Olympic team. Then for 5 additional years he was assigned as the senior army advisor to the U.S. Naval War College. No one even knew that he existed in the outside world. When they needed him, there he was. The marines today have that system in place. They will protect their combat leaders by, in effect, hiding them and stockpiling them. There are more Ph.D's proportionally in the United States Marine Corp today than there are in any of the other services. They say get your Ph.D. and don't get it in childcare, but in fields we're interested in. So somebody thinks about this stuff, not enough and certainly not enough in the corporate world.

MJK: Clearly there needs to be more consideration of potential future needs in this different environment and more thought to succession planning. Tell me about leaders you've looked up to. Who were they and why did you look up to them?

ROBERT DELANEY: Let me give you two military examples and one diplomatic. I'll start with the negative example, which is what a leader should not be. I once worked for a guy who was highly successful naval officer. He would not tolerate anything outside that chain of command socially, politically, or militarily that he didn't like. I can not remember anybody who served him in a senior position who ever made admiral and the other admirals knew that anybody who worked for him was either a nut or had better watch out for himself. Today he is forgotten; even though he is still living no one remembers his name.

MJK: You don't create a legacy by only looking out for number one and not caring about developing those coming along behind you to take your place nor by being selfish and self-centered.

ROBERT DELANEY: That's absolutely right. The other naval example was a guy who also was a four-star. He was a leader with vision. He created the NATO standing group, which was a group of ships that rotated of all the nations, so that they could learn to work together. As they got promoted they would have had the benefit of that two-year experience. He created a special school of international officers. He saw that for the post soviet period that we'd better start looking for a different mix of talent in our senior officers and that was 15 years before it happened. He was fully aware of the requirements of being a good commander or good manager of people, but his major focus was "What should I be thinking about?" He died prematurely of cancer before he had even more opportunity to positively impact the system for the future. The man in the diplomatic service who influenced me more than any other person was Dean Atcheson. He was cool, sophisticated, well educated, and he had vision. He and George Marshall got on very well indeed. Marshall was also a leader, but of a different sort. He was an organizational leader. He took the army from 200,000 to 13,000,000 in less than 24 months. That is genius. Atcheson was the fellow who said what do we do about Europe after World War II? And it was he who created the Marshall plan. He was everywhere selling that plan, out in front, convincing people, persuading people, giving speeches with a whole bureaucracy behind him putting the bricks and the mortar together. People said he's right, even though we don't want to believe it. And he did it. So those are two people that I thoroughly respected and admired.

MJK: What about figures in literature or philosophy or historic leaders?

ROBERT DELANEY: I would say the leadership of Robert E. Lee in the Confederate Army. They stuck with him when they were starving because he offered them a vision even when the vision become smaller and smaller and disappeared. He was a visionary, he hated bureaucracy, he delegated, he inspired, and he led. He's almost too perfect and yet he sponsored a losing cause. Shakespeare because of the profundity of his observations on human nature and genius at being able to put it into words that have lasted centuries. His leadership was an intellectual and psychological leadership. Franklin Roosevelt because he was a pragmatic visionary. He wanted it to work and he was determined. The result was that he basically saved American society at that particular moment in time.

MJK: If you were advising a young leader today or mentoring a young man or woman who had leadership potential or even already leadership roles or responsibilities, what advice would you give them?

ROBERT DELANEY: Read, read, read and study history. Secondly, be true to your convictions and move forward. Do it. Don't be afraid of failure because you're judged on it. People who fail and pick themselves up and move on I think come closer to the ideal of leadership.

MJK: If you could pick only three most important things about leadership, what would they be?

ROBERT DELANEY: Articulateness, moral integrity, and vision. You can go a long way with that.

MJK: Since people are often either good leaders or good managers, but not both then how do you make good marriages/partnerships so that connection and cooperation occurs. We both know that is paramount in having a successful country or company.

ROBERT DELANEY: I think you can sum it up in one word - Recognition. Unfortunately, the majority of people don't recognize this need to make a marriage or partnership. It's as simple and yet profound as that. For a company or the country to succeed requires a different mix of talents and traits. It's not all one way or the other. You've got to appreciate this and be able to pick people, which is a talent in itself.

MJK: I'd like to explore further what you think the challenges of leaders today are in corporate America.

ROBERT DELANEY: In corporate America I see the big issue is the final phase of the restructuring and reformation of American corporate life brought on by the technologies, brought on by new products and brought on by preparing themselves to enter into a new model. Their problem is they're going to have to bring big labor along with them which doesn't understand and where they do understand the new direction they oppose it. On a different subject, I was fascinated when Castro attacked world capitalism and, of course, everyone laughed. But who else has attacked world capitalism? The Pope has. Two opposites and they're saying the same thing, which is in seeing the totality of the human condition you can not leave people out of the net. What's wrong with capitalism they both say is greed and excess and then the Pope has also gone on to say corruption. Castro can't say that because his own regime is corrupt. But they're onto something.

MJK: What do you think is going to happen with this?

ROBERT DELANEY: It depends on leadership again. I can envision somebody getting up there some day and saying we've better take a basic look at where we're going and what we want and how much is enough. Here we are not 20% of the world population, but 45 % of the world's resources. Of course then that opens the door for those who say we have to do something about ozone, global warming, El Nino, pollution, etc and then the businesses say whoa, we won't be in business if we listen to you guys. There's got to be a middle ground and we're no where near that and we haven't had a leader who can bring this together.

MJK: What would you like to say about the role of corporations in this country?

ROBERT DELANEY: Corporations have to become, in a much more serious way, good corporate citizens because their power is immense. Historically being a good corporate citizen has meant handing out money. But there is too much at stake for them to stay out of the game. The CEO's have got to have a social side to them and I don't mean going to dances. I mean they have to be aware of what's going on in the society. They have to be keenly aware of developments out there. This incidentally develops vision. And out of that have come some very good leaders.

MJK: How do you think corporations can breed leaders?

ROBERT DELANEY: If I had to put my money into something, and it would be long term, it would be into education because there's where greatness begins to develop. Like Buzz Aldrin shouted, "I want to go to the moon!" when he was a kid responding to what do each of you want to do. How do you get there? You don't get there by not learning how to read, and you don't get there by not knowing history. Corporations as a private non-political entity of sizable dimension need to say "we are not going to put up with these kids who are coming to work in our corporations not being up to the mark and we want that system changed or even destroyed and rebuilt." Gadgetry and buildings are replacing the essence of learning and now we have to teach a whole new generation how to learn. It has to be done massively with a tremendous amount of money involved and the only organizations that I can think of who are capable of doing it are corporations. You see little bits and pieces of this around the country now. One chairman of the board put up 24 million dollars in 1998 to send ghetto kids to private schools. He decided I'm doing it and I'll do it my way to make a positive change and impact. Then he asked for parents to come sign up and he had something like 18,000 mothers and fathers who came. They were barely literate themselves, but they caught this vision. This is the sort of thing that we need, but it has to be organized. I don't see the government doing it because it's too political. I do see the corporations doing it because it's community and it's for their own best interests since you need an educated work force. You can not survive with a system that was a tremendous system in its time, but everything's changed except these institutions that date back to an earlier time. There's an issue we want to work on.

MJK: It would seem that we must address not only outmoded educational systems, but any system including those in our companies that no longer serve us in our changed business environment. Not the least of these is giving more attention to developing the leaders we need for the future and integrating more in the communities of which our corporations are a part to make a positive difference both inside and outside the corporation.

N.B. This article was originally published in Competitive Edge Magazine.


Marie J. Kane has been an executive coach and corporate consultant for 20 years. She specializes in innovative approaches to executive development with a special emphasis on individual and group virtual coaching. She is the author of a comprehensive team assessment and development process, creator of "The Leader's Way" executive development program and a co-creator of an integrated strategic and operational planning process as well as offering state-of-the-art employee selection and development systems integrated with performance management and organizational culture. Marie may be reached at Marie@executiveevolution.com , and visit www.executiveevolution.com for additional information.

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