The Elements of Leadership

Yesterday, I lectured half a dozen high school students on the elements of leadership. These were pre-screened students at a small but rapidly growing Christian school. They had already demonstrated leadership abilities. They were coming out for half a work day to shelve a few of my books.

What could I tell them of value in 45 minutes? Not much.

Here are some of the basics. Maybe these will be interesting to you.


There are fewer leaders than followers. Over and over, we see Pareto’s 20-80 rule in action. About 20% of a particular group will account for 80% of the productivity, or trouble, or whatever it is you’re considering. Leadership involves gaining access to the 20%, and then, over time, the top 4% (20% of 20%).

The fact is, most people don’t want to lead in most areas of life. But 80% of them do want to lead in some area. They want to be respected for something. Leadership is a sign of respect. People feel ill-equipped in most areas, but in some area that they know something about, people are willing to lead the 80% who don’t know what’s happening in this area.

I think almost anyone can be turned into a leader, if he or she wants to become one. This person won’t be a leader in every area, but in one area, yes. But the person must pay the price.

The greatest book I have ever read on leadership is Douglas Hyde’s Dedication and Leadership. It was published in 1956 — a long time ago. It’s still in print. Hyde had been a leader in the Communist Party in England during the 1930’s and 1940’s. He rose in the CP to become editor of the CP’s daily newspaper. He converted to Catholicism in the late 1940’s, as he records in his autobiography, My Story. In seminars, he began teaching Catholic priests about the techniques used by the Communists in gaining influence. Dedication and Leadership is a short version of his seminars on leadership techniques.

In the book, there is a remarkable chapter, “The Story of Jim.” Hyde had given a speech in which he said that he could make anyone into a leader. After the lecture, an overweight, stuttering man came up and asked him to make him a leader. His name was Jim. Hyde knew he had his work cut out for him. He went to work.

He had Jim dedicate himself for a year to mastering his trade. He was a factory worker. He told Jim to show up at every trade union meeting, set up chairs, do the grunt work, and keep his mouth shut. In other words, he told Jim to make himself useful in simple ways. But, most important, would be Jim’s commitment to doing the best job he could on the production line. He had to show his fellow workers that he was competent. Actions speak louder than words.

Jim did as he was told. Within two years, he had become a leader in the union. He had worked on controlling his stuttering. His confidence level was much higher. He was, of course, even more dedicated to the Communist Party, because Hyde had delivered on his promise.

Why does this strategy work? Because of two things: (1)men’s respect for work well done, which in turn reflects on the worker; (2) the service principle.

The Communists stole the second point from Jesus. The disciples had been squabbling over which of them would exercise leadership.

But Jesus called them to him, and saith unto them, Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:42-45).

With respect to the first principle, Leonard E. Read of the Foundation for Economic Education used to say, “When I’m on the golf course, people don’t come up to me for advice. They prefer to ask Arnold Palmer.” Yet Read had hit half a dozen holes-in-one in his career. He kept at it, always trying to improve his game. Read’s point was simple: self-improvement is the key to leadership. Read had never gone to college, yet, through FEE, which he began in 1946, he almost single-handedly created the libertarian movement. He even wrote its original how-to manual, Elements of Libertarian Leadership, which is in fact a self-improvement manual.

These two books are the ones I would use in any class or seminar on leadership. The third would be Frank Meyer’s The Moulding of Communists.


You can’t be a leader in every area. You must acknowledge the reality of the division of labor. You must specialize.

Find out what you really love to do, and concentrate your efforts on this. Pick that area of your life in which you want to excel for a lifetime. Then devote time, effort, and money to mastering it. The key is mastery. You must become so proficient that people who are interested in this area come to you without your having to ask or recruit anyone — like Arnold Palmer on the golf course.

If you will devote 5,000 hours to almost anything, you will become an expert if you have any innate ability at all. You will be so good at it that you can distinguish poor performance from good performance, and understand how to avoid the poor and deliver the good. If we are talking about a 40-hour week, 5,000 hours is two and a half years. If you devote an hour a day, it will take you 15 years. If you start at age 20, by 35 you will be an expert. For something that takes an hour a day, that’s not too long to wait.

That’s why starting young is so important. It leaves you time to exercise leadership.

What hurts people is that they don’t stick with it.

They flit from interest to interest. They lose interest.

They get bored. They cease to work on self-improvement. It just isn’t worth it any more. This leads to the next principle.


Jack La Lanne, the 80-something expert in exercise, says that you should devote 90 minutes a day to exercise. But he also says that you should vary your routine. Boredom is what keeps people from continuing. The key to sticking the program is to avoid getting bored.

If you are constantly working on self-improvement, you should not get bored if the field you have chosen is worth pursuing. There is always more to learn. At some point, you will become a teacher. That will pressure you to get even better.

One of the techniques used by the Communists was to give a new member a stack of Daily Worker newspapers and send him out to sell them. This sold newspapers and gained income, but it also got the new member into trouble. He would be challenged verbally by anti-Communists. He would not know the answers. This would pressure him to take evening seminars on Communist theory.

The Black Muslims (Nation of Islam) adopted this technique in the mid-1960’s. They would station their people at supermarkets frequented by whites and blacks, and have them sell Muhammed Speaks. (The technique ceased to work in the 1970’s.)

That’s why it’s important to select something really worth doing early in your career. I decided at age 18 what my area would be: biblical economics. No one taught it. There was no textbook. There was basically nothing. There was no money in it, either. So, I knew I would have to do some hard plowing, but I also knew that I could become the world’s expert if I stuck with it long enough, because there was no one else doing it. As I have said for years, I now have a monopoly. Unfortunately, demand is still low.

I have never gotten bored with the project. I plan to devote at least another decade in doing the research, and then write an Adam Smith-sized book on it. The Web has arrived, and also publishing-on-demand technology, so it’s a lot easier to write a book and get it published than when I started the project in 1960.

You can keep plugging away if you don’t get bored. That’s why picking the right topic or area of service is so important. First, it has to be worth doing. Second, it has to offer a lifetime challenge. If it lacks either element, you probably won’t stick with it.


When leadership brings applause, fame, and a chance of making a lot of money, the competition gets stiff. There are a lot of people trying to climb their way to the top. Not many will make it. Of those who do, not many will keep the top position. In Hollywood, there are only a few John Waynes, Henry Fondas, or Jimmy Stewarts who hold the top for decades. A Clint Eastwood shows up, but not often.

But if there is not much public applause or positive sanctions, you can stake out your territory and become a major player. If the area is important, but inherently a non-profit activity, your competition will be mostly amateurs. This allows a dedicated person to become a leader.

If you want an example of the consummate modern master of such service, study the career of Mother Teresa. She helped orphans in Bangladesh. With full-time dedication and a manual typewriter, she quietly created an international service organization that helped tens of thousands of people. I think it was Peter Drucker who said that if any profit-seeking business was equally large, the director would require a multi-story building and a support staff. She ran it from Bangladesh with a manual typewriter. She even replied to me in a letter.

How did she do it? By sticking with it. The project was worth doing. No one else was doing it. In a Muslim nation, a Catholic nun was respected and even loved. She performed a crucial service for which there was no money in Bangladesh to pay, so she raised money from the West. She received thanks by the end of her career — acclaim and fame beyond what most fame-seekers ever dream of. That’s because she did it without any intention of seeking fame.

I doubt seriously that she ever took a management course. She probably never read Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People. If she did, she did not take it seriously. When the Clintons invited her in 1994 to appear with them at the National Prayer Breakfast, she gave a talk in which she mentioned the evil of abortion.

She saw a need and went out to fill it as best she could.

It is worth noting that her organization has a waiting list of volunteers who are willing to spend their lives in selfless service, while other liberalized, modernized Catholic orders are shrinking from a lack of replacements.


The average American Protestant pastor stays at one congregation for about 5 years. Then he moves on. He never builds up what the Communists called a cadre. The members know that he will move on if he is successful, or if he gets bored, or if he confronts problems that don’t go away rapidly.

A congregation’s lay leaders dig in and wait out the pastor, who come and go. Pastors find that they face roadblocks in their ministries because the laymen in the boards know that they hold the hammer, long-term.

A pastor who sticks for a decade begins to get his way. He wears out the laymen. If the pastor is both patient and prudent, he can outlast the opponents. He has the pulpit. They don’t.

Liberals in the mainline denominations figured this out over a century ago. If they could gain control the denomination’s national boards, which were full-time paid positions, they could outlast the laymen and pastors at the General Assemblies. What they forgot was attrition. When old members died, they were not replaced by young members. Because the liberals made the church seem more like the world, outsiders figured that they could keep their tithes and offerings for themselves, and use their Sunday mornings for amusement. The mainline denominations wound up with too many chiefs and not enough braves: leaders with a declining number of followers. But this took a century. The liberals dug in; their opponents came and went. The liberals had a long-term plan. The conservatives didn’t.

Pick a geographical location and dig in. Don’t leave. Don’t answer the call of more money elsewhere. Become a fixture in the community. Become reliable people who are called on, year after year, to show up at meetings. Most people will not show up. Those who do will wind up in the positions of leadership. Woody Allen once said that 80% of success is just showing up. He was right.

A familiar face is a trusted face. A person can get away with almost anything if he is one of the town’s good old boys. The smaller the town, the truer this is. As Hyde’s book shows, a person who has shown up for years can slowly move an organization in almost any direction he chooses unless there is someone else on the other side who is equally faithful organizationally and equally self-conscious. There rarely is.


For years, I have told people, “Authority flows to those who take responsibility.”

Most people do not want to take responsibility. They are risk-aversive. They would rather not succeed than risk failing in public. The person who wants to lead can take advantage of this preference on the part of most people.

Accept responsibility where no one else wants it. Along with responsibility comes authority. It is a package deal.

A person who is willing to accept the blame for failure, but allow others to gain the credit for any success, can run the show from behind the scenes. The old line is true: “Success has many fathers. Failure in an orphan.” If a person is willing to claim responsibility for the failure, he gets to make policy.

The man who, more than anyone else, was responsible for the American libertarian movement, was a master of this strategy. He never took any credit, but he extended a lot of it. He wrote the checks. He did this for decades, invisibly. He would fund a project for three years. If it worked, the project’s director would get all credit. If it failed, he would fund another project. After the man’s death, his nephew followed the same policy. The nephew put up the loan money in 1946 to allow Leonard Read to start FEE. The fund’s money also financed Ludwig von Mises’ graduate students. It funded Murray Rothbard when Rothbard could not get a teaching job. It funded F. A. Harper, who used the fund’s money to publish Rothbard’s masterpiece, Man, Economy, and State (1962). In her later years, it funded Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, who was a dedicated libertarian. It funded me in the crucial summer after my graduation from college. If you were to trace back the conservative/libertarian movement before the Hiss-Chambers case in 1948, most roads lead to his checkbook. But nobody ever follows the money.

He avoided publicity like a plague. For four decades, he was one of the most influential private citizens in Kansas City, Missouri. Yet you have never heard of him. His name was William Volker. The civic leaders in Kansas City had no awareness of his work in libertarianism. The libertarians had no awareness of him at all.

There is a biography of him titled, appropriately, Mr. Anonymous. Almost no one has ever read it, which would have pleased him. If you read any history of American conservatism, there will be no reference to the work of the Volker Fund. That, too, would have pleased him. (The Fund’s papers are in the Hoover Institution, which received the distribution of the Fund’s assets a quarter century ago. The Fund’s story would make a very useful doctoral dissertation, a rare item indeed.)


I call my strategy the dogcatcher strategy. You have heard the phrase, “I wouldn’t elect him for dogcatcher.” So, run against him. Start at the bottom. Scrub the toilets. Do the work that nobody else wants until the system depends on you. Keep learning. Keep improving yourself. Stick to your knitting.

May 2, 2002

Gary North is the author of Mises on Money. To subscribe to his free investment letter (e-mail), click here.

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