Relearning from the World’s Greatest Leaders | Leading from the Library

Fortune’s annual list of the 50 greatest leaders is all about learning leadership from those who practice it best. Does what makes leaders great change over time?

Steven Bell head shotFortune’s annual list of the 50 greatest leaders is all about learning leadership from those who practice it best. Does what makes leaders great change over time?

Take a look at nearly any book on leadership and it will profile the people—overwhelmingly men—who best exhibit the qualities of leadership. Their stories provide examples of what leaders do, and avoid doing, to achieve greatness. What takeaways about leadership would be drawn from the stories of contemporary leaders, beyond just the traditional white males who dominate leadership in corporate America? For example, this year’s cohort of Fortune’s 50 greatest leaders. What happens if we take this group, analyze their accomplishments, and then draw conclusions about what currently constitutes great leadership? This seems like an opportune time to delve into the list, owing not only to its diversity, but also because I last wrote about “50 great leaders” five years ago. To what degree, if any, have the qualities of great leadership changed, and what in particular qualifies a leader as “great” in 2019?



These rankings are primarily subjective, as Fortune offers no quantitative rationale or rubric for determining who makes this list. Put together though, it can suggest a theme for what’s currently emerging as admirable in leadership circles. For 2014 that theme was “transformative.” These leaders were not merely humble, admirable, or powerful, but had dramatically changed industries and organizations. Looking back at the 2014 list, I pointed out that it featured only 17 white males, although they occupied four of the top five spaces. Who captured the top spot that year? Not some corporate CEO or politician. Pope Francis was judged to be the most transformative leader, challenging long-held standards, traditions, and practices. I also pointed out that risk taking was a common trait among nearly all the leaders. But then achieving transformation, particularly in organizations where change resistance is considerable, comes with great risk.



Is it possible that the core of leadership could change dramatically in five years? Examining the 2019 cohort of great leaders, there is ample of evidence of transformative change. Yet, in 2019 what emerged as an overarching theme was, in a word, courage:

It’s striking how courage is a theme running powerfully through this year’s list. Whether in business, government, education, sports, or NGOs, these leaders take action before others do, leading from out front, where the risk is often dire and their own future least certain. Everyone has something to lose.

Taking risks goes hand-in-hand with leadership. Leaders who avoid risk at all costs are doing their organizations and workforce a disservice. Few library leaders are positioned to take the multi-billion, life threatening, or “lose it all” type risks demonstrated by these great leaders. Even library leaders, though, should have the courage to take good, calculated risks that involve change or innovation. Everyone is bound to disagree with some of Fortune’s choices, particularly those of familiar faces like Bill Gates or Tim Cook. Those few aside, there are some excellent leadership stories here. Senegal’s Fatma Samoura is the first female secretary general of FIFA, soccer’s world-governing body. In addition to cleaning up a corruption scandal, Samoura has increased the number of women in FIFA’s administration and begun efforts to create equity between men and women’s soccer. While some of those listed have considerable wealth, others, such as William Barber, do not: Barber is a pastor who organized the Poor People’s Campaign to contest unethical treatment. The campaign fights an uphill battle to challenge state legislators to improve the lives of impoverished citizens. Both the 2014 and 2019 lists include these types of amazing profiles, so it’s hard to say that what makes great leaders has undergone some sort of radical change in these past five years.



Like all good leadership stories, these great leader profiles in courage can inspire library leaders to think about their own leadership and reflect on how to improve. It’s hardly necessary to constantly engage in risky projects to be recognized as a great leader, but a good leader will take a reasonable amount of risk on a regular basis. It helps me to think of what Jim Collins referred to as “waterline risk” or what some might call “intelligent risk.” He suggested imagining a boat. What would happen if the risk taken would put a hole in the ship? Where would it be? Above the water line or below? Neither is desirable, but one sinks the ship and the other is just a setback. Applying that thinking to risk-taking may allow leaders to become slightly more courageous when it comes to change. All 50 profiles are about change and having the courage to take the necessary risks to make it happen. Creating change in our libraries is never easy. Resistance is always likely. There are strategies and models galore that suggest ways to manage change. Whatever path you choose to take on your way to great leadership, the lesson from this year’s list of greatest leaders is that it always starts with courage.

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Steven Bell

Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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