Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Good, the Great and the “HBR”

hbr-logoProminent on the Harvard Business Review’s website, one finds an article by James R. Bailey entitled, “The Difference between Good Leaders and Great Ones.” Now one should not quibble at the uncomfortable plural of the word “one” on display for all to see in the title; I confess that I myself have, on rare occasions, used that false plural, though never in such a conspicuous position, of course. Still, the article is worth perusing, if for no other reason than to contrast it with what great leadership actually is. Large stretches of that article sound about right in no small part because the entire article is partially true. If one were to think evenhandedly, one might conclude something along these lines: “a partial truth is better than no truth and certainly better than a lie. It’s better than evil. It’s an improvement on bad. At least it’s something that is practically complete, almost right, virtually true.”

But one would be wrong, for something can’t be “virtually true.” Truth is necessarily complete in and of itself. Partially right is wrong; practically complete is incomplete; virtually true is false. So I begin by suggesting that what the famed scholar James R. Bailey, the Hochberg Professor of Leadership Development at George Washington University’s School of Business, and coauthor of Handbook of Managerial and Organizational Wisdom, has written is, in fact, a mean sort of lie.veritas

That expression “a partial truth is a mean sort of lie” (meaning, of course, an intentional partial truth) is penned in the back of the Bible that once belonged to my grandmother, Blanche Evans Jakes. After her death, I happened upon that old book, and I have never forgotten her personal notes scrawled within it. Yet if that saying sounds a bit pointed, even piquant, nevertheless that very piquancy is why, I suppose, I have never let it slip from my memory. And one must understand that in the phrase, “a mean sort of lie,” the word “mean” does not convey the sense of “belligerent” but rather “cheap,” “inferior.” In other words, partial truth fails even to measure up to being a clever lie. It’s a second-rate lie, one that is base, vulgar and vile.

Now you might be thinking that I’m being petulant. But I am not. Yet if not, why would I want to vilify the work of one James R. Bailey, work presumably so profound that it bedecks the HBR website? Well, vilify is a strong word, and I’m not out to do that. But I suppose the reason I am calling attention to his work is because his article contains a number of facile suppositions that, unexamined, might tame the docile reader into submission, causing the reader to believe that, just because that professor has an elevated position, he must be right. Dr. Bailey writes:

“It’s tempting to think leadership … follows a continuum, one anchored by bad and great, with good somewhere in between. … I dispute … the stubborn resolve that great and good are points along the same stream. That just isn’t so. Great leadership and good leadership have distinctly different characteristics and paths. … great is a force. True, great also means “excellent,” but that is not its primary meaning. As for “good,” we usually reference morality, virtue, and ethics — “a good person” or “a good decision.” Good can refer to the quality of something — contrasted against the commonly understood opposite, bad — but in this context good refers to the direction in which behavior is compelled.
        Great leadership is powerful, dominating, often overwhelming. It can sweep people along through sheer animation. Great leadership excites, energizes, and stimulates. It’s a rousing call, shocking complacency and inertia into action. It’s one of the most potent pulls in human history, and as such accounts for much of humanity’s progress, as well as its suffering. While it ignites collective action and stirs passion, its direction depends largely on those that wield its power. Great has no inherent moral compass, and thus its unpredictable potency can just as easily be put toward pugilistic and peaceful purposes.”

hitlerAccording to Professor Bailey’s argument, someone like Adolf Hitler could be classified as a great leader. But, do we really want to say that? Can you imagine yourself standing there at a cocktail party with a glass in your hand and say to group of your friends, “Well, you know, Adolf Hitler really was a great leader.” And then when everyone looks aghast, perhaps you could add, “Well, I got that off the Harvard Business School’s website.”

Then if you’re remarkably fortunate, an equally hoodwinked interlocutor might say, “Well, yes, I saw that article! Indeed, according to—was it someone named Bailey’s?—definition, I think you have a point.” But in truth, it is very unlikely that any of the ones (sic) at that party will be aware of Professor Bailey’s droll redefinition of the almost trite expression “great leadership,” his prominent place on the Harvard Business Review’s website notwithstanding.

For he has forgotten that good and great, though not technically on a continuum, are contiguous ideas in English. “Great” is related, of course, to the German gross, meaning large, derived from the Indo-European root *ghreu- which seems to have meant “grind” (though according to the OED that etymology is far from certain).[1] One thinks of great as referring to size when, for example, one thinks of an appellation such as the Great Lakes or World War I as the “Great War,” or the description of St. Mary from the second chapter of Luke, “… Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea … 5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.”

Ever since the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the word has primarily meant “excellent.” Now Bailey is right to note that good and great are not the same idea. Good’s comparative is better; great’s is greater. Yet both adjectives currently imply something decent, something right, something noble, not something simply powerful. In fact, I cannot think of a sentence in which great could be substituted for “shocking complacency and inertia into action,” to use Bailemoral-compassy’s words cited above. No I think Dr. Bailey is simply wrong. Hitler was not great, nor can any leader be who, to use Bailey’s words again, has “no… moral compass.”

But leadership can be a neutral term, and maybe that’s what Dr. Bailey really meant to say. Leadership can be good or bad. A good leader will be driven by decency, will be compelled to action by a sense of the divine imprimatur, whether he or she knows it or not. That gracious mark on the good leader’s life will evidence itself in a profound moral sense, a desire for justice not for self-aggrandizement. When one finds a good leader, it is rare. When one finds a great leader, one who has such characteristics to an even greater degree than the good leader, that is rarer still.

Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman

And while it is obvious that no great leader will be perfect or have an unblemished record of leadership, one can quite often sense a great leader when one hears that person speak or reads what he or she has written. One might disagree with that leader’s political vantage point, but one should, nonetheless, sense that greatness from his or her palpable courage, thoughtful command of words and principled execution of deeds. One might here think of presidents such as Lincoln or Kennedy, or famous figures such as St. Teresa of Calcutta or Harriet Tubman. And there are many others, from Queen Victoria to John Paul II, from Pericles of Athens to Mahatma Ghandi. (Notably not on the list are Pol Pot, Josef Stalin, or Adolf Hitler).

So it would seem that leadership can be either good, great, or bad, and greatness, pace Dr. Bailey, cannot be bad or good. One portion of Plutarch’s description of Cicero, of which I here in closing render but a brief snippet, sums up well the portrait of a truly great leader:

“For [Cicero] especially revealed to the Romans how much pleasure rhetoric adds to the good, and that justice is unassailable if it is rightly spoken, and further that it is incumbent upon one engaging in the business of civic leadership ever to choose the good instead of merely the agreeable, and by his words to remove the bothersome from that which is advantageous.” ( Life of Cicero, 13.1)

[1] Further see the handy online source:


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One thought on “Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Good, the Great and the “HBR”

  1. Perhaps I may offer a different perspective. I feel as though there is a discrepancy in definitions surrounding the word “great” in this article. In my opinion, Dr. Bailey is idiomatically using “great” in place of “successful” in his article. Assuming this to be true, then in context, the article would be claiming that there exists a discrete difference between a leader who is “good” in a moral/ethical sense and a leader who is successful in a sense that the leader is able to move not only his or herself but also some group of people towards some goal which is determined by the leader’s ambitions.

    In my opinion, success in this respect is indeed amoral. In order to illustrate this, consider two men. One man lifts a rock from the ground in order that the trail he is walking be easier to traverse by those who follow, the other lifts the exact same rock but with the intent to sabotage those who follow. Both men “successfully” lifted the rock from the ground, however, they clearly had very different motives. Either way, I would argue, that the action of lifting the rock from the ground in and of itself is neither a “good” nor “bad” action. In application to leaders, while it may indeed by a misnomer to call Hitler a “great” leader, I think it would be inaccurate to claim that he was not a successful one. While I in no way support or condone his goals or methods, he was able to successfully (for a time) have an entire country follow his whims using the power of words (although this was, of course, not the only tool used). Using the same power of words, Martin Luther King Jr. was likewise able to move an entire nation in a marvelous way. Both of these leaders were successful in their respective endeavors, yet morally they were guided by very different principles.

    It is, therefore, that I would claim leadership in and of itself is unable to be judged purely along the axis of “good” and “bad.” The quality of a leader, in my opinion, is determined by the moral compass of that leader, but this is completely and utterly separate from how adept the leader is at achieving their goals. If taken in this context, I think that the words of Dr. Bailey are not inaccurate to any large degree. While Dr. Bailey’s use of “great” is rather loose, the idea that the overall efficacy of a leader is not determined solely by the leaders moral compass is not, in my opinion, grossly inaccurate claim.

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