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Starved for better leadership? Here’s where to find it

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

Americans are down on their leaders. The president of the United States has one of the lowest approval ratings ever, and at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Congress is one of the most disliked institutions in the nation. Trust in most pillars of American society has been eroding for years.

Offsetting this disillusionment, however, is strong leadership in other parts of American life that get less attention. “Most Americans perceive we have a leadership vacuum,” says Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn, author of the new book “Forged in Crisis.” “But there are people all over the map who are doing important things and moving the boulder of goodness every day. Leaders come out of the mist, and they show up in a way that makes us proud to have our kids watch these people.”

As an antidote to the divisive style of leadership that often dominates the news, Yahoo Finance has identified some inspiring counterexamples: people who are motivating teams to change the world without putting themselves first or aiming to win at any cost. There have been many books and research notes over the years that identify the top qualities of leaders. We’ve focused on characteristics that are especially notable in today’s cynical political climate, along with people who epitomize those traits.

Here are six attributes of strong leaders in the Age of Donald Trump:

They pursue missions, not slogans. Sylvia Acevedo became CEO of the Girl Scouts earlier this year, after a career as a NASA rocket scientist and tech executive at IBM, Dell, and Apple. She’s retooling the organization to focus more on science and technology and wants to boost the odds for girls considering tech careers. Accomplishing this mission requires “really understanding what your focus is, then having persistence and determination,” Acevedo tells Yahoo Finance in the video above. “All over America, I get to go see girls making a positive difference in their communities. I am really upbeat.” (Here’s a longer version of our interview with Acevedo.)

Girl Scouts CEO Sylvia Acevedo (Korey Howell Photography/GSUSA via AP)

President Donald Trump has rallied supporters around his famous slogan, “Make America great again.” But stirring words aren’t the same as action. “’Make America great again’ is a compelling slogan, but it doesn’t tell what the real mission is,” says Koehn of Harvard. “The how behind the stirring platitude matters a great deal.”

There are plenty of leaders who excel at the how. Elon Musk has stirred near-religious devotion among supporters who think the companies he runs, including Tesla and SpaceX, will transform entire industries. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has been revolutionizing entertainment and delighting consumers since the company first started mailing DVDs in 1998. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos wants to disrupt seemingly everything with new business models that are better, faster and cheaper. These leaders motivate people with actions and accomplishments rather than rhetoric or war chants.

They are morally grounded. “All leaders set an example for others to follow, and first must be a strong and meaningful moral compass,” says Sydney Finkelstein, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and author of the 2016 book “Superbosses.” “All organizations require a compelling answer to the question: why do we exist? When the answer appears to be to further the grandeur and self-regard of our leader, the organization starts to lose legitimacy.”

Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, earned a French knighthood for his efforts to infuse environmental sustainability into the profits on Dove soap, Hellman’s mayonnaise, Lipton tea and the firm’s many other products. Starbucks Chairman and former CEO Howard Schultz, a possible presidential candidate, built the ubiquitous chain around the concept of “emotional attachment” with customers while personally championing gay rights and other social issues. Comedian Jordan Peele has “single-handedly created a new genre” of fill, according to CNN, by tackling the issue of racism head-on in his recent film “Get Out,” when most film studios run from controversial topics.

They “run toward problems.” Lisa Su, CEO of chipmaker AMD, says that’s the best piece of advice she got as a young engineer trying to get ahead. “Look for those hardest problems and volunteer to help solve them,” she told The New York Times earlier this year. When Su took the top job at AMD three years ago, the stock had cratered and the company’s future was shaky. She threw out her predecessor’s incremental strategy and doubled down on high-performance gaming chips, with the gamble finally paying off. The stock has risen 113% during the last 12 months.

They have strong opinions, weakly held. This is an old Silicon Valley mantra emphasizing the importance of changing your mind while maintaining your credibility, when conditions change or new information overrides previously held beliefs. “Strong leaders are clear and consistent about where they are going, and they communicate it over and over — until the point at which they change course,” says Robert Sutton, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and author of The Asshole Survivor Guide. “Strong leaders also need someone in their life to tell them the truth, to bring them down a notch.”

When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was building his company, its mantra was “Move fast and break things.” But Zuckerberg modified that as the company matured, and its needs and role in society changed. Legendary investor Warren Buffett has changed his mind many times about the virtue of investments such as airline stocks, derivatives, and technology shares. In politics, a change of viewpoint is often derided as “flip-flopping.” In business, it’s learning from mistakes or experience.

They possess emotional awareness. After the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln famously wrote a seething letter to Union General George Meade, excoriating him for letting Confederate forces escape instead of routing them. Then Lincoln put the letter in a drawer, unsent, and forgot about it. “Great leaders have a reservoir of emotional awareness,” says Koehn. “They have a really good Geiger counter giving these signals, so they don’t respond even though they’re really worked up. That includes knowing when not to send a tweet or an email because it will compromise your mission.” We don’t know what tweets or emails prominent leaders haven’t sent because those are needless controversies that haven’t happened — which is precisely the point.

They leave room for others. In “Superbosses,” Finkelstein highlighted a type of leader who is a good mentor but more than that, encourages employees to move on and up when opportunity beckons. Instead of demanding loyalty and servitude, such leaders end up cultivating a renewable stream of talent and a vast network of protégés who become influential in their own right. Ralph Lauren did this in fashion, where prominent designers such as Vera Wang, John Varvatos and Joseph Abboud once learned at his side. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison has bid farewell to so much talent that one tech executive quipped, “I think half of Silicon Valley is run by former Oracle people.” And Lorne Michaels, co-founder and executive producer of “Saturday Night Live,” has churned out well-known comedians to everybody — including many who excel at lampooning the nation’s leaders, whoever they are.

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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman