Kenyan proverb: A leader who does not take advice is not a leader.
Nigerian proverb: In the moment of crisis, the wise build bridges, the foolish build dams.
Ethiopian proverb: The fool speaks, the wise man listens.
Simultaneous with reading this book I was wrestling with the concept of leadership, something I’ve thought a lot about the last couple of years. This is perhaps my fifth attempt to put words to it, having rejected paragraph after paragraph until nothing is left. My difficulty probably is a reflection of my lack of experience. After all, I’ve spent a lifetime, not always successfully, avoiding holding an administrative position.
I’ve come to the realization that if I can’t discuss what leadership is, perhaps I should instead consider what it isn’t. Because I’ve seen instance after instance of exactly that.
It’s no coincidence that my thoughts on the subject have surfaced in conjunction with the term of our current president, but his is not the only individual to drive them. However, his style provides example after example that makes me wonder why anyone works for him.
A leader shouldn’t surround himself with sycophants who play to his ego.
A leader shouldn’t assume he knows more than everybody, including experts. For example, our president does not know more than scientists or generals.
A leader shouldn’t humiliate publicly those who work for him or attack viscously on a public forum those who oppose him. Not a great way to foster loyalty or respect.
A leader shouldn’t drive wedges into crevices that already divide, splitting factions even more. What’s the advantage of that?
A leader shouldn’t define success only in terms of what he considers complete wins, for then alternative solutions that might be better overall are automatically off the table.
Admittedly, the preceding comments have been inspired by our president, but he is not alone in those types of actions although he certainly exhibits them to an extraordinary degree.
A leader shouldn’t place his organization in financial stress because of actions within his control. This occurred recently when good people from my university made poor choices on the spending of money, using a pot designated for one purpose to fill an undisputed need for another. They should have known better and they paid a heavy price for it.
A leader shouldn’t take advantage of his power over others to force people into situations they feel helpless to avoid, from carrying out non work related tasks to sexual favors. I have been astounded by recent revelations showing how widespread this practice has been, involving politicians, businessmen, entertainers, orchestra conductors, educators and more.
These are a few of the areas where it’s clear to me a person in a leadership position is not acting in a leadership manner. But understanding that doesn’t seem to help me get a handle on what a good leader is. Sure, none of the preceding activities should play a roll. But what should?
I did not like the policies of the first president of the university where I taught. I and many others were outspoken in our criticism. But not once was there a hint of retaliation or censure. Seems to me he was a true leader, willing to make tough decisions but being comfortable with opposing views. Okay, I guess I do understand one aspect of a true leader.
However, as I continued pondering the definition, I came no closer to a definitive answer. Finally, Realization One, I accepted I probably never would because I don’t live in the world of power nor do I want to.
But then, Realization Two, I came to understand there are many kinds of leaders beyond the confines of government, industry, education, health care, and board rooms.
In fact, every one of us is in a potential leadership position. For every one of us, there are people who look to us for advice, love, comfort, direction. They might be children, coworkers, spouses, parents, friends, strangers.
How we respond indicates the kind of leaders we are. Do we lead by doing what is right? Do we lead by kindness and concern? Do we lead by understanding and acceptance? Do we lead by searching for the best (or least bad) solution when there is no good solution?
Many fail this kind of leadership test. But many more, whom the world might consider “ordinary people,” do not. And these successes make society work.
Let’s all try to be good leaders. And perhaps take some lessons from Africa.