While it takes many qualities to make a great leader, the ability to persuade has to be near the top of the list. In politics, examples abound, from Lincoln to Churchill, from Gandhi to John Kennedy.
In the contemporary business world, the obvious names are fewer, though Jack Welch and Steve Jobs come to mind.
You can't get very far if people don't embrace your message. None of these leaders ever yielded from his vision, and each was willing to pay the price for defending and achieving it.
My favorite leader falls into neither sphere, and he probably had the toughest job of persuasion ever recorded. Whether you know his story from the Bible or the Cecil B. DeMille celluloid version, Moses embodied all the necessary skills to lead, and his greatest gift was his rhetorical power of persuasion.
In a thumbnail sketch, Moses was born an Israelite, but was raised in a royal Egyptian household. After killing an Egyptian guard, he fled, only to make a new and contented life in a safer setting. He returned to Egypt to fight for the freedom of his brethren. He even turned down a plum post within the royal family and instead demanded his people's immediate release.
After a series of deadly plagues - coercion is the basest form of persuasion - Pharaoh finally relents and lets the Israelites leave. They head to the Red Sea with the angry Egyptian soldiers in hot pursuit. Once at the water's edge, his followers turn on Moses, angry at their apparently deadly options. He assures them that going forward is the best choice. They reluctantly cross.
That alone is quite a story, but for Moses, it's only the beginning. Later he treks up a mountain near the Israelites' encampment and God gives him the 10 Commandments. He comes back down and finds his brethren returning to their pagan ways. He then has to climb back up the mountain to persuade God not to kill his brethren for their misdeeds. He also must persuade the Israelites to give up their debauchery.
None of this is an easy sell. But Moses successfully demonstrates the key skills of persuasion. His primary tools are words - though that staff he carries around is impressive - and he uses them to create a compelling vision of the future, especially when talking to the Israelites. He promises them "a land of milk and honey" to convince them that leaving Egypt is a big step up from their enslavement, though hardship lies ahead. He is extremely credible, as he not only returned to Egypt after winning his own freedom, but he also turned down a life of comfort offered to him by the Pharaoh. Finally, Moses was one of them, not some outsider telling them what was best for them. They never had to question his commitment.
While the travails of Moses clearly go far beyond what any CEO or senior manager will face in his career, his story is worth paying close attention to. Employees and investors want a CEO who offers a compelling vision with demonstrated credibility and a history with his company. Taken together, these three traits create a foundation for building a company and an identity that inspires respect and loyalty.
Fred Bratman is president of Hyde Park Financial Communications.