When the city of Thebes revolted against Alexander the Great, he force marched for 13 days to put down the revolution and destroyed the city.  Genghis Khan massacred entire cities that refused to submit and pay tribute to him.  When Michael Eisner took over as head of Disney, he swept 20 top executives out of office and replaced them with handpicked people.  While Eisner was not quite as draconian as Alexander or Genghis Khan, his actions today may seem almost as ruthless. How many managers do you know who will not or cannot bring themselves to replace incompetent people? 

Bill Walsh, coach of the 49ers said in a Harvard Business Review interview, that there is always one or two players on any team who “do not fit in and whom you need to TRADE.”  I have students in almost every one of my classes who will earn an F.  I once gave five out of six students an F and the sixth received a D for not doing the work.  

You can say I am a poor teacher if that many received an F, but in fact most of my classes do much better work. However, there sometimes seem to be groups that just negatively feed on each other. This was a group that wanted to do as little as they could and pass. I kept talking to them but they did not believe I would fail them. With the current grade inflation in academia, many students think that all they have to do is show up and they will get a passing grade. My students quickly learned that they must earn a grade in my class and if they do not, I will not hesitate to give them an F.

A typical dictionary definition of the word ruthless (Merriam Free Dictionary, Wikipedia, Dictionary on Line) is “without pity or compassion; cruel, merciless, adamant, relentless.”  When studying the history of great strategic leaders we see a pattern, they did what they had to do to succeed.  They were at times undoubtedly ruthless. We can judge the ethics of actions today and decide whether they are right or wrong and indeed, it is essential for leadership to consider the ethical dimensions of its actions. However, it is more difficult and problematic to judge the actions of leaders in the past. We are no longer in the same context and culture that they found themselves in. 

Was Truman right to drop the atom bomb on the Japanese? Did the Allies make the right decision when they firebombed Dresden? Should the US have invaded Iraq and hung Saddam Hussein? To some such ruthless actions may seem to lack compassion but to others it is freedom.  George Washington ordered the execution of deserters to maintain discipline in the continental army. In 1862, Abraham Lincoln declared martial law and ordered the suspension of the constitutionally protected right of American citizens to writs of habeas corpus.  Ruthless actions by two of our most revered leaders which have long since been forgotten.

Ruthlessness!  Doing what needs to be done!  We do not always have the luxury of not stepping on peoples toes.  An egg shell must get broken before you can fry an egg.  This does not mean that we can or should go out of our way to hurt others or to ignore the impact that our actions will always have on others. Today more than ever, we need a seventh trait for great leadership.  We need a strong moral and ethical sense to add to the other six traits. We need leaders who understand and think about the ethical dimensions of their actions.  

Ethical leadership must be guided by both law and compassion. We cannot afford leaders of any stripe who ignore the issues of morality that are often a hidden part of every great decision. Great strategic leaders today must make the moral and ethical dimensions of leadership decisions transparent. Decisions must always be made with consideration for their impact on the lives of others not only in the US and the rest of the world but also for future generations.  Ethical leaders will still need to be ruthless in their ability to pursue a course of action, but it will be a course of action that has been selected only after the ethical and moral impact on society has been considered.

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