Leadership for the Next Generation: Lessons from Gardner's On Leadership

16 Sep 2008   ::   Non-Technical   ::   #Leadership


Leadership is of critical importance for all organizations. Through good leadership an organization can thrive, while a lack of leadership leads to ruin. In his manuscript, On Leadership, John W. Gardner expresses the ideals and steps that we as a country must embrace to create a leadership revolution, and to bring back the nostalgic leadership of the history books. Throughout his novel, he laments our country’s lack of leadership and emphasis on creating technical specialists instead of the next generation of Washingtons and Jeffersons.

Gardner begins his rally with an establishment of the virtues and skills which enable good leadership. For Gardner, “leadership is the process of persuasion or example by which an individual (or leadership team) induces a group to pursue objectives held by the leader or shared by the leader and his or her followers” (1990, p. 1). In addition, Gardner notes that leadership is but a component of accomplishing group purpose. It is the leader’s responsibility to rally and motivate the entire group towards success. A leader that follows only his own ambitions, rather than the group’s shared goals, cannot succeed. Gardner continues his discussion by highlighting some of the key tasks of a leader. As part of the group, a leader must remember he serves as the most visible symbol of the values for which the group stands. His behavior must therefore always affirm the group’s values, regardless of setting. Leaders must also keep the group on the path to achieving its goals. This includes helping the group to envision and understand its goals, as well at motivating the group, managing, and maintain group cohesion. These tasks are not independent objectives, but simultaneous responsibilities involved in effective leadership.

Leaders do not bring about success alone. Good leadership requires creating connections and relationships with one’s constituents. Gardner notes that leaders must be adaptive, knowing when to ask for input, and also when to make decisions on their own. Great leaders are also great followers; leaders and constituents are not locked into those roles at all times. In reality, “leaders are almost never as much in charge as they are pictured to be”, nor are followers blind sheep (Gardner, p. 23). From my own experience, I have learned that the best leaders say very little and let others speak. By considering the input of others, one brings cohesiveness to the group and gains great insight as well. The leader’s goal is not to achieve individual glory; his job is to work on behalf of the group to bring about collective success. Followers are also responsible for the group (p. 36). Followers must be careful to not become dependent upon the leader or in time, they will fail. Followers are also responsible to protect themselves from corrupt leaders; they should not take abuse, accept lies, or allow the leader to derail the group.

One of the critical issues in the manuscript is how leaders must balance and use power. Without power one cannot lead, however, it is possible to have power and not be a leader. Leaders must obtain power, but use it equitably. I believe that issues of power can make or break a leader. Power can corrupt, but it can also enable a leader to do more good. Hitler used his power to bring out paranoia, fear, hate, and revenge (Gardner, p. 69), which are all negative aspects that in the long run prevent the group from working together and succeeding. In contrast, a good leader uses his power to help achieve the groups’ shared goals. For example, in Greenleaf’s servant leadership model the leader uses his power to nourish each individual and assists the development of individual strengths (Daft, 2008, p. 176). Gardner cites the work of McClelland, noting there is a growing resistance from young people to hold power (p. 66). This is still true today. Members of my generation have seen the corruption of Enron and others, and it seems we are often blind to the good that we can do if we have positions of power. Power is a necessary tool to push forward any agenda and to influence those who hold power over your constituents or external factors. Even the purest of intentions require power. Without power, the leader cannot barter or make deals or put political pressure on others. For instance the charity work of Jane Addams would not be possible without support from politicians and donations of time and money (p. 59). Power could lead to individual corruption; however, when applied to the general good and the good of the group it can bring out morality, sharing, and good-will.

Gardner wants to revitalize leadership at all levels, and in all organizations. Leadership can become more complex and intricate as the organization grows larger, thus he goes to lengths to explain large scale organized systems and fragmentation within such large organizations. Large organizations such as the United States federal government are characterized by organized systems which are immense in scale and interdependent (Gardner, p. 81). Today’s leader must learn to navigate though the resulting complexity. The main problems plaguing such organizations are bureaucracy and division of labor because they impose boundaries on communication and decision making. Organizations benefit from open communication (Daft, p. 264), where ideas are shared without departmental limits. Communication must also flow in all directions. The best ideas may come not from above, but from below because the employees actually use and understand the processes. In addition, by creating cross-boundary working-groups or transferring personnel between departments, communication barriers are reduced and new ideas flow in to break up the stagnation within a unit (Gardner, p. 86). Gardner notes that bureaucracy adds additional steps that also impede the decision making processes. Conversely, when leaders distribute authority and decision making power, better decisions are made in less time. By making each group feel appreciated and impressing the importance of their work, the entire system benefits from increased productivity from within each unit.

An underlying theme through the manuscript is renewal. Leaders are responsible for renewing values within their community. While in the past most communities were homogeneous, in today’s communities and workplaces, there are many different types of people and strangers must be welcomed (Gardner, p. 115). Therefore, leaders are responsible to seek out and reinforce shared values, while realizing that these values are subject to change. Leaders must learn to effectively balance continuity and change. Order should be established, but at the same time leaders must bring out creativity and enthusiasm in their followers. People can often learn to accept a flaw or outdated process; thus, the leader must work to awaken individuals and prepare them for change. Gardner notes, change can only come when people are ready for it (p. 126). Leaders can prepare an environment for change by getting involved on the floor and demonstrating to followers that they have a brighter vision for the future.

The climax of Gardner’s manuscript deals with the importance of leadership education and how this task should be tackled. Throughout his lessons he hints that young people flee from leadership roles and are motivated to focus on technical excellence. One of the problems impacting leadership education is that our education system focuses students on specialization and personal achievements. However, Gardner states that the best leaders are in fact generalists or specialists turned generalist (p. 159). This mentality is still prevalent nearly 30 years later. Here at RIT, the average student mentality is to become an expert technician. For this reason, students place a strong emphasis on core courses and relative disdain towards the liberal arts. However, through the study of the liberal arts, one learns not what, but how to think and how to understand the world from various viewpoints. Young leaders, as Gardner explains, must understand how the whole system functions, how interactions with neighboring systems need to be managed (p. 164). The other imperative change in education must be a move towards working in groups, and group rewards. During my primary and secondary education, I can remember small efforts being made to teach group work and better communication; however, rarely was group work ever explained or taught in any meaningful manner. It is not sufficient to put students together and tell them to complete a task.

Gardner expands upon the above issues by providing some ideas on how we can overcome these systematic issues. While it would be desirable to create a standardized curriculum for leadership education, this is an unrealistic prospect. Instead, Gardner addresses some general factors which will improve the student’s education of leadership. Like many things, our views and understanding of leadership begin at a very young age. Parents must be aware of this, and work hard to instill leadership and cooperative values in their children. After parents, teachers are the most influential people in children’s day to day lives. Teachers must make sure their curriculum, regardless of subject, includes structured group work, as well as leadership and team building activities. Out of the classroom, students can benefit from structured and mentored work experiences. However, the student must be guided along. The functioning of the organization must be explained and interpreted. The student will not instinctively understand; we must take the time to explain how the organization functions.

While it is important to begin leadership education early, we must realize that leadership scholarship is a never ending pursuit. Like our education system, the workplace often puts emphasis on individual extrinsic rewards. There must be a shift towards system-wide and grouped based rewards, thus encouraging cooperation and the free flow of information. Midcareer retraining and renewal are also important. By expanding into new fields and learning new techniques employees satisfy intrinsic needs and increase their potential for innovation. It is also important that throughout one’s career that they are encouraged to seek outside experiences and community involvement. If people take on additional responsibilities and leadership roles, all of the organizations, as well as the individual, benefit from the varied experiences.

At the end of his didactic novel, Gardner looks towards the future. He has confidence that among the masses there are individuals with the drive, energy, and passion to lead, but that we must seek out and nurture these individuals. Perhaps only in dire times will the greatest and most memorable leaders rise; however, I submit that with dedication to leadership and commitment to greater causes we can instead make these times great. Because of the times and circumstances we remember Jefferson, Washington, and Lincoln. On the other hand, I believe that even without extraordinary circumstances these individuals would still have had a large impact on the groups, institutions, and people with which they interacted. Great leaders see the greater picture, and work towards the greater good, regardless of how history will remember them.


Daft, R. L. (2008). The Leadership Experience. Mason, OH: Thomson South-Western.

Gardner, J. W. (1990). On Leadership. New York, NY: The Free Press.