Confidence game: It takes a leader

February 24, 2009, 11:30 PM UTC
Fortune

Are you keeping the faith? Your answer probably depends on whether you have the right leader to look up to.

I’ve been thinking about leadership a lot lately. For one thing, I read on the front page of today’s New York Times that a remarkable portion of America believes in our new president. Sixty-three percent of Americans approve of the way Barack Obama is handling his job, according to a new New York Times/CBS News poll. That high job approval rating includes 88% of Democrats and 44% of Republicans. Who would expect that when, according to the same poll, 64% of Americans are concerned that someone in their household may be out of work in the next 12 months?

We all need faith. It’s human nature. And maybe even people – mainly Republicans – who don’t like Obama’s economic rescue plans are nevertheless forgiving his shortfalls. They want our new president to win. So why not cheer on his perseverance and even follow him?

In the business world, too, people are desperate for strong leadership. Last week in Silicon Valley, I was talking with a well-known business person (who shall remain anonymous) who said that Yahoo’s tough-talking new CEO, Carol Bartz, is exactly the type of leader that company needs right now. Why? Because Yahoo employees lacked clear direction before and so need it now. In fact, any direction will be better than feeling lost and confused.

Indeed, this topic of leadership came up again last evening at a dinner I attended in Manhattan. I met a smart guy named Gary Busacca, who runs Pallino Asset Management in Short Hills, NJ. Once a managing director at Lehman Brothers and later a Citigroup exec, he told me that back in the day when he was training new employees, he talked about the value of personality and perseverance in leadership.

I was flattered when Busacca said that he used my 1996 cover story on Charisma to illustrate the personality of a successful leader. Busacca and I agreed that charisma can get a bad rap – and did after Enron and other corporate scandals. But a leader’s charisma helps enormously today. Obama uses it to his advantage. So do today’s most successful Fortune 500 CEOs. Think of Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo . Jamie Dimon at JP Morgan Chase . A.G. Lafley at Procter and Gamble . Lafley, whom I know well, has a quiet charisma, but he’s a leader who drills a consistent message and people really want to follow.

By the way, Busacca taught those corporate recuits about perseverance by having them read Green Eggs & Ham.

I will not eat them here or there.

I will not eat them anywhere.

I do not eat green eggs and ham.

I do not like them, Sam-I-am.

As you may recall from the Dr. Seuss classic, Sam-I-am tries every means imaginable to persuade his neighbor to eat green eggs and ham. He fails and fails again. Only by unflagging persistence, Sam-I-am gets the neighbor to taste green eggs and ham. Of course, the neighbor finds the dish delicious.

So here’s to our leaders in Washington and across the corporate landscape: Keep trying!