What are the qualities that define great leadership? Passion? Optimism? Communication? Conviction? Bravery? Honesty? Luck? One thing’s for sure: we need some leadership now. Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, offers his own analysis of what great leadership involves. –

We live in a momentous time. The world stands divided between passionate believers in the promise of democracy and those equally determined to eliminate democracy altogether. If history teaches us anything, it is that the dream of freedom resists all attempts to restrain it.

The success of our leaders at uniting us relies on the strength of their beliefs and how effectively those beliefs are communicated. Great leaders develop and refine their ideas. Great leaders cultivate contrary opinions, question the status quo, and listen carefully. And then, after the evidence is in and the decision to approach a problem a certain way has been made, a leader must stick to that belief and communicate it to the public.

One of the reasons Ronald Reagan’s leadership resonated so deeply is that people sensed that his decisions were based on core beliefs rather than opinion polls or advice from political handlers. Even those who did not share his beliefs were impressed with president Reagan’s character – the man who left the White House in 1989 was essentially the same man as the one who was elected eight years earlier.

At the same time, great leaders also evolve. They must be intellectually honest: no one has the same beliefs at 20 as they do at 60. Some beliefs develop in a methodical way. Through trial and error you come to realize that an idea you had was mistaken. The notion that changing your mind about an issue is “waffling” is false. The reality is that people should admit when the evidence contradicts the hypothesis on which they based a belief. That’s an indication of intellectual honesty, not a lack of backbone. By the same token, once the belief has been formed and communicated the leader has to stand behind it, even if it proves to be unpopular.

Leadership inevitably involves making some people unhappy. The 20th century gave us several extraordinary examples of this brand of bravery. Mohandas Gandhi led a peaceful revolution to control the destiny of an entire country. Winston Churchill convinced Britain that the country could withstand the Nazi blitzkrieg. Dr Martin Luther King Jr used non-violence to lead a country to racial equality and civil justice. Ronald Reagan believed that encouraging free markets and opposing communism were the best ways to spread freedom and democracy.

All dealt with adversity, and all were opposed at times. History has proven them correct. Their core beliefs stayed the same, despite adversity. It is one thing to change your mind as you evolve intellectually. It is quite another to change your mind because political expediency or a bad press suggests a more popular course.

Another trait that all great leaders share is optimism. Winston Churchill said: “I am an optimist. It does not seem too much use being anything else.” Imagine a leader making the opposite choice. He might say: “Things are really bad. They’re certain to become worse. Now, follow me.” In order to lead free people, you need optimism.

This does not mean a leader should be a Pollyanna who ignores reality in order to put a sunny spin on events. Being an optimist means knowing you’ve got options. As Abraham Lincoln observed: “The pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity, the optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” In my own experience, I fought to maintain optimism even after the awful events of September 11. I couldn’t tell people “be brave” unless I was willing to walk the streets. I couldn’t ask people not to panic over anthrax unless I was willing to go to the places where its presence was suspected.

Once the leader gives up, then everybody gives up, and there’s no hope. It’s up to a leader to instil confidence, to believe in his judgement and in his people – even when they no longer believe in themselves. You’ve got at least to try to fight back, no matter how daunting the odds.

Sometimes the optimism of a leader is grounded in something only he knows – the situation isn’t as dire as people think for reasons that will eventually become clear. But sometimes the leader has to be optimistic simply because if he isn’t, nobody else will be. In 1980, the US was in a deep malaise. A crushing recession and spiralling inflation had many Americans fearing the country’s best days were behind it.

When Ronald Reagan ran for president, he spoke about his hope for the future and his confidence in the strength of a free people. There were many who dismissed his sanguine optimism as wishful thinking. Eight years later, with the country’s economy, security and mood dramatically improved, the force of optimism combined with strong beliefs and effective communication was impossible to ignore.

In the light of that example, it’s possible to understand why Winston Churchill believed, even during the autumn of 1941 that “these are not dark days: these are great days – the greatest days our country has ever lived”. As the world moves forward, its nations must be resolute in resisting the forces that would move us backward. We must communicate these beliefs and we must believe in them. For these, too, are not dark days. These are great days.

Rudy Giuliani
Rudy Giuliani is chairman and CEO of Giuliani Partners LLC. He was mayor of New York City between 1993 and 2001. Under his leadership, overall crime fell 65%, murder was reduced by 70%, and New York was recognized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as the safest large city in America.