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Good leaders share certain qualities

Op-ed: What makes a good leader? Lynne Agress lays it out.

In a recent New Yorker magazine cartoon, two men are standing on top of a steep cliff, watching a third man walk down the side of the mountain. "Let's not mistake his confidence for leadership," No. 1 says to No. 2. Obviously, they have no intention of following No. 3 off the cliff.

And that in a nutshell is what leadership is about. If you don't have followers, how can you be a leader?

H. Mebane "Meb" Turner, now 85 and long-retired, served more than 30 years as president of the University of Baltimore — far longer than most college presidents. "The ability to get along with your colleagues is most important," Meb said of his leadership style.

"Guide them in a positive way, establishing goals," he said. And "most of all, be willing to share credit."

If it were that simple for leaders like Meb, why then are there so many books — not to mention lectures, courses and TED talks — on leadership? Because not everyone is a born leader.

One of the most popular books on leadership, long title notwithstanding, is by Ian Berry: "Leadership: The Real Skills You Need to Influence People and Take the Lead." Mr. Berry stresses creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship and certain body language as the main characteristics of a leader.

John Maxwell, another popular leadership guru who speaks to Fortune 500 companies, claims leadership is determined by the number of people you influence.

Of the 12 most popular books on leadership, only one is written by a woman. Yet women have always possessed leadership qualities. In a riveting historical novel inspired by the life of a real woman, "The Spymistress," author Jennifer Chiaverini describes how Elizabeth "Lizzie" Van Lew, while living in Richmond in the 1800s, helped the Union army win the war against the Confederacy. She developed, among other leadership strategies, an amazing underground spy system, managing to get messages as well as sympathizers to the officers up north.

When the Civil War ended in 1865, Lizzie got to meet both President Abraham Lincoln as well as General Ulysses S. Grant. Although Lizzie was unable to vote for Grant for president in 1869 (women could not vote until 1920), President Grant appointed her Postmaster of Richmond, a position unheard of for a woman at that time. During her tenure (eight years), she expanded and modernized the entire postal system, even establishing a post office manual. (Sadly, it took until 2014 for the U.S. government to appoint a female postmaster general.)

Fast forward 150 years to our modern mailing system. Ben Chestnut, the young CEO of MailChimp, an e-mail marketing service, credits his varied heritage (his dad was a white American; his mother, Thai; his parents met during the Vietnam war) for nurturing his early leadership skills. Thus, he said he learned to "bridge different worlds and connect people." In his business today, he works closely with his managers to come up with their company values: "creativity, humility, and independence."

Working together as a team is important to Mr. Chestnut, but encouraging individuals to share their own, often creative ideas is important as well. "Creativity leads to innovation," he said. The advice Ben Chestnut gives to new college graduates is not "do what you love, but love what you do."

Wanda Draper, 65, the new executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History and Culture, is a perfect example of loving what she does. Ms. Draper, former director of programming and public affairs for WBAL-TV, claims that leading the museum "is not a job ... but rather a labor of love."

"I love that museum," she exclaims. As for her leadership style, Ms. Draper advises: "listen and learn from your specific environment about what you are trying to accomplish." That "environment" can be "your industry, the market, the economy, your team."

Moreover, do your homework. "Preparation" is paramount, she said. "Understand who you are and where you are."

Tenacity, stick-to-itiveness, is a quality that all four leaders share. That, and experience. As Meb puts it, "experience really counts — having been in the trenches."

Let me add a few more qualities that all good leaders have and generally just take for granted: Honesty and integrity; respect for others, whether or not you agree with them; and always remembering to learn, to experience, to observe and to include — for no one can successfully lead alone.

Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Odyssey Program of Johns Hopkins, is president of BWB-Business Writing At Its Best Inc. and author of "The Feminine Irony" and "Working With Words in Business and Legal Writing." Her email is

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