#1 Question Every Leader Needs to Ask

Last Updated Jul 14, 2011 12:44 PM EDT

Modesto Maidique, a visiting professor at Harvard Business School, thinks the most important question to ask of a leader is actually a simple one: Whom do you serve? Yourself? Your colleagues? The greater good of mankind? Or, no one?

Maidique aims to show that the answer to this question reveals more about leaders than knowing their personality traits, their level of achievement, or whether they are 'transformational' leaders.

By showing how leaders from Adolf Hitler to Oprah Winfrey to Nelson Mandela-with a number of boldface corporate names in between-might truthfully answer this question, Maidique defines a six-level typology of leadership.

What Makes a Leader?
Here are Maidique's six levels of leadership, with an explanation of what organizations and employees can expect from each type of leader.

Level One: Sociopath
The first level of leader is the one who literally serves no one: the sociopath. This is the person who eventually destroys pretty much everything: value, those who surround him, and himself (Maidique says sociopaths are pretty much all male). Luckily, these are few and far between. Adolf Hitler is the classic example.

Level Two: Opportunist
This is the person who serves only him or herself, often at the expense of others. They're generally after wealth and power, and don't care about much else. Bernie Madoff provides a good example. He profited by scheming to deprive hundreds if not thousands of retirees of their nest eggs. Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling qualifies too, having sold off tens of millions of Enron stock just before the company filed for bankruptcy.

Level Three: Chameleon
These are the so-called leaders who try to please everyone, all the time. Needless to say, it doesn't work out too well. Maidique says it's hard to find well-known corporate examples of this type, because they don't tend to rise too far in organizations. But in politics, Chameleons abound. Maidique places both former Florida governor Charlie Crist and Senator John Kerry in this category. Kerry's quote about the authorization bill for the Iraq war--"I actually did vote for [it] before I voted against it"--doesn't help his case.

Level Four: Achiever
At level four, we start to find people whom we can at least refer to as 'leaders' with a straight face. Executive ranks are filled with Achievers: These folks are goal-oriented, motivated, good at beating sales quotas and earning their accolades at merit-award dinners. Their focus on corporate goals, however, can mean that they fail to see the larger picture. Maidique puts former Hewlett-Packard CEO Mark Hurd in this category: Sure, HP's stock price more than doubled during his tenure, but he did it by slashing research and development.

Level Five: Builder
The Builder serves not a goal but an institution. These are the leaders with a grand vision that doesn't get derailed by fluctuations in short-term profit or stock market valuations. These are leaders like IBM's Tom Watson, Jr., General Motors' Alfred P. Sloan, and Oprah Winfrey, all of whom infect others with their enthusiam, energy and integrity.

Level Six: Transcendent
There aren't many of these. These are the leaders who look to benefit all of society: Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Dalai Lama.
What type of leader are you, and what type of leader do you strive to be? How about your boss?

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Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul.
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.