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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

On Leadership

One must wonder at political leaders who, having spent a decade or more criticizing, belittling and demeaning those in office then ask their countrymen to feel sorry for them when they are questioned or criticized during their tenure. It would be simple to dismiss them under the rubric of live by the sword, die by sword, but it is about something far more alarming.

Let’s examine the idea of a leader complaining about perceived mistreatment in the first place. Shocking as they may seem to some people, leadership is not about garnering the love and approbation of the public. Anyone who assumes a leadership role believing it will be without controversy or conflict is clearly naïve, unobservant or disbelieving all evidence to the contrary. We have witnessed examples of individuals who led during relatively calm and uneventful periods and during great crisis and we have both a contemporary and historic perspective on their leadership, those who have led well and those who served only their own desires.

Among the many lessons we should have learned by now is that those who assume leadership whether attracted by power, a need for personal aggrandizement or approbation may achieve their ends in the very short term but will be harshly judged in retrospect. We know this but can remain attracted to individuals who we understand on an intuitive if not intellectual level, are wholly unfit to lead. There are several reasons why.

We may be attracted to people who have achieved a degree of notoriety and/or accomplishment because we believe that those qualities will be conferred in some way upon us. It is never the case—even were it the desire of such leaders to do so, and typically it is not. In examining how such people achieved what they did we must look beyond the superficial to understand their fundamental character. We must look at how they treat their family, friends and those who work with and for them. We must question whether they are secretive, or transparent, selfish or giving, trustworthy or deceitful, especially when there is no reason to lie. But for the most part we do not examine our leaders—those we elect or those we chose to work for, despite the fact that it is both our right and greatest responsibility.

Most people elect someone they believe is aligned with a fairly narrow set of shared qualities or beliefs generally those which will benefit them. In some cases, voters will in a manner of speaking hold their noses and vote for someone they find personally disagreeable but view as less worse than another. In other instances, biases, grievances and disaffection with their own lives leads people to identify with someone they believe will right what is wrong with the world as they see it. And finally, some folks simply follow the guidance of family, a religious or social sect without question. Only rarely are we as a people attracted to those whose personal integrity, character and willingness to assume power is conditioned on our defense.

Such leaders, even if they enjoy brief periods of trust and approbation are quickly put aside once imminent danger has passed. Real leaders know this. They understand that it is not about them—they are servants. Real leaders are human, not without mistake but humble and wise enough to admit when they err; and they do. Humans are flawed, even those considered great by history have been wrong some of the time—and not just a little but often serially. Leadership is hard, lonely, and fraught with temptation to take the easy path. True leaders almost never do what is easy—but do what is necessary for the welfare of those who have placed their trust in them. They will be held accountable and only the lens of time will tell us with any certainty whether the decisions they made were the right ones.

The right decisions in times of crisis are never obvious but always come from the essential humanity of a leader. This is how we can know who is worthy of our trust. Almost every one of us desires respect, admiration, love and perhaps the material trappings that come with success. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but when we are willing to obtain these things at others’ expense we cannot and should not lead.

None of what I have said is very difficult to understand or observe. These lessons require only a little study and introspection about the manner of person we are willing to entrust with our own life and the lives of those we love. To whatever degree they appear to be in agreement with some perspective we may have—it is the person themselves we are electing. We should want them to be the best of humanity—and we should not need to make excuses for their failings as human beings.

We like to believe we have control to some degree over our own decisions and destiny. When we give that authority to another, we should be prepared to examine them though the most critical lens and despite any other quality. If we find them lacking empathy, compassion and self-awareness we must walk away regardless of any other qualities we may find attractive.

Great leaders attract people of integrity and character—they do not award subordinate roles to those who will not challenge them or those who cannot think for themselves. And great leaders even if they are conferred with near total authority remain uneasy with the responsibility—always looking for others to help them share the burden and casting aside such power at the first opportunity. True leaders respect themselves, respect others, and take responsibility for their actions. In the words of Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher, "A leader is best when people hardly know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, we did it ourselves."

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