You rarely find profiles of the greatest leaders all in one space. I admit to being curious about what makes them great and what wisdom those profiles might offer. Librarians are well aware that the current periodicals collection is a serious occupational hazard. Think of it as the pre-Internet time sink zone. Set apart from the hectic energy of the computers, it remains a place in the library to get lost in a space where all accounting for time drains away as we are immersed in a fascinating interview, photo essay, or a gripping story. Sometimes it’s a learning experience. For a library leader, this particular issue was all those things wrapped up in one. It was a magazine cover that no aspiring or experienced leader could resist. I’m referring to Geoff Colvin’s article, “The World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” featured in the April 7, 2014 issue of Fortune. This was no mere listicle.
Who’s Number One?
Fortune’s Greatest Leaders List is one of its special reports that I look forward to, not only for the satisfaction of seeing who made the list but also to see what new nuggets of inspiration can be drawn from the profiles. As with any annual list of substance, it’s always of interest to see who made the number one spot, and 2014’s choice was a serious surprise for readers. Being that this is Fortune magazine we’re talking about, you probably assume the top leaders are CEOs, and if so, you’d be wrong. The world’s number one greatest leader is Pope Francis. Francis, perhaps more so than any other leader, demonstrates the top quality that serves as the threshold to make this list: the power to transform. Colvin writes about the distinction between leaders and people who are admirable and powerful, but not transformative. It is the latter who make this list. In just over a year, Francis has shown that leaders must be courageous in seeking new directions and bucking the status quo. He’s humble, too. That’s why he wants the world to stop giving him the rock star treatment. It probably won’t happen.
This year’s list is also notable for its diversity. The list includes just seventeen white male leaders, although they account for four of the top five and seven of the top ten. Angela Merkel, one of several political leaders to make the list, takes the number two spot for bringing stability to the European Union, and weathering crisis after crisis in her nearly nine years as its de facto leader. During that time, she has led the Union through a multitude of economic breakdowns, and has not backed down during the Ukraine crisis. The bulk of the list is made up of choices that span races, ethnicities, genders, and nationalities in a way that one might not expect to see in a Fortune list. There are non-profit leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi and Geoffrey Canada; it’s not just corporate CEOs. Even celebrities like Bono and Angelina Jolie are recognized for their ability to transform charitable organizations so that, as Bono states, “everyone else feels in charge.”
Sharing of Wisdom
What nuggets of leadership wisdom does one find in this year’s list? Given the short length of the profiles, truly in-depth leadership advice can be hard to find. Still, a few ideas rose to the top. General Joe Dunford, Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan and number seven on the list, shares that he was once given three rules for success. The first, he said, was “Surround yourself with good people. The other two I’ve forgotten.” “Be willing to experiment” was the mantra for the twelfth leader on the list, Geoffrey Canada, CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone. One of the college presidents on the list, Maria Klawe of Harvey Mudd College and number seventeen, is recognized for breaking the mold and trying something completely new, as evidenced by Mudd’s ability to boost the number of women majoring in engineering. Another great example of creating a transformation comes from Ellen Kullman, CEO of DuPont and number thirty-one on the list, who took risks to create change and brought DuPont back from years of lackluster performance. Perhaps nothing says leader better than the company name of number forty-one this year, Nancy Lublin: Do Something. If one of Colvin’s top goals in selecting these leaders was to inspire us, these 50 profiles get the job done.
Leader With a Library-Like Challenge
The hardest part of compiling the Fortune leaders list, I imagine, is deciding who not to include. No doubt some truly difficult decisions must be made about who gets left off the list. One of those who missed the cut is Virginia Rometty, CEO of IBM. If the threshold for making that list is being a transformative leader, then Rometty seems to pass the test. None of those leaders on the Fortune list seems to have a situation that has as much in common with the modern library as does Rometty. Like libraries, IBM has legacy lines of business that may no longer be its most profitable, but must either be maintained or jettisoned as new opportunities come along. Of course, IBM must move faster than its competition—a problem libraries don’t have. That—and figuring out what to do with Watson. Rommety also leads 400,000 employees around the globe, and does so with an interesting mix of digital and analog development tools. The key to leading a transformation, for Rommety, is about being definitive and having confidence that you, as the leader, are making the right moves for the organization.
Rationale for Leadership Lists
Lists of almost anything are taken less seriously these days because we suffer from list fatigue. In a world where a flood of dubious listicles offers little more than advertising click bait, the Fortune Greatest Leaders List maintains its integrity and is perhaps needed now more than ever. Why? Because it reminds the world that we still have amazing women and men who rise to the top of their fields and inspire us with their courage, determination, and willingness to go where others fear to tread. In the leadoff to the list, Colvin offers up a series of statistics that confirm the world’s declining belief in the power of leaders to inspire and influence positive change. The Edelman Trust Barometer indicates that only 15 percent of citizens trust government leaders to make the right decisions. As the world’s problems multiply in type and complexity, Colvin states that finding great leaders is harder than ever. The latest Fortune Greatest Leaders List is evidence that they can be found, and that when we know who they are and what they have to share we can still learn from them.