Measuring Leadership Performance in Context

Mahatma Gandhi at the Charaka or Spinning Wheel

In this article from Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, US presidential historian Richard Norton Smith offers ten guidelines to evaluate presidents. These guidelines apply to assessing leadership performance as well.

History’s take on presidential performance is subject to change. Presidents can only be understood within the context, conventions and limitations of their time. Each generation needs to revisit its assumptions in light of new evidence, the performance of succeeding presidents and the perspective that comes with time.

Frequently, leadership assessments disregard the fact that leadership is contextual. The common belief that Mahatma Gandhi was opposed to modernity and technology ignores Gandhi’s proposal for rural development through means such as homespun cloth, cottage industry and self-sufficiency in the just-independent India. Six decades hence, this idea now seems obviously bizarre.

Furthermore, ideas, competencies, and actions that are relevant in one context can be inhibiting in others. Comparisons of General Electric’s CEO Jeffrey Immelt to his predecessor, the legendary Jack Welch, in terms of shareholder return ignore the fact that Jack Welch’s tenure intersected with the prosperous Regan- and Clinton-presidencies and Jeffrey Immelt has faced two of the worst slowdowns in modern history.

Some of the key intellectual traits demanded of a leader — risk-taking, vision and execution, organizational development, etc. — may not see fruition until long after the leader’s tenure. Hence, a broad, sincere assessment of a leader’s performance can happen only years after his tenure.

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