It has been over 25 years ago that I first gave a presentation on leadership. Since then, in over a dozen states and three times in Europe, the message has stayed the same because the need remains the same. Whether in the micro world of a family, at the chapter level, at the state surveying society level or writ large in the nations of the world, the need for good leadership remains the same—hence nothing has changed in my message.
As I reflect on the new normal (not last week’s new normal, but the one from 15 minutes ago), my mind dwells on what we need most in these uncertain times—contemplative, compassionate leadership.
Leadership in our modern era—or any time in the past, for that matter—is not an exercise in perfection. It is completely unrealistic to expect anyone to have all the right answers and do all the right things. In fact, in the complex world we live in, there are no unambiguously correct solutions; nothing can be done or said that will please everyone, that hurts no one, or that is universally helpful. And that’s not because of so-called political correctness, victim-mentality or us vs. them mentalities. Those attitudes do exist, and they can make it more difficult to find acceptable solutions to the profound problems we face today and as we look ahead. But accounting for them results in better, more comprehensive, more enduring answers.
Notice, I did not say those attitudes make it more difficult to solve our profound problems; I said it makes it more difficult to find acceptable solutions.
In the same way there are no unambiguously correct solutions to our problems, there are also no flawless leaders. And in the same way there are no flawless leaders, there are also no unblemished followers to be led.
Leaders who expect perfection in those they lead are, at best, unreasonable and at worst perverse. Expecting more from others than we bring to the table ourselves is a blatant act of arrogance. Those who expect perfection in those they lead are not only bound to be disappointed, they are not true leaders.
Likewise, a major element of leadership is accepting imperfection in those being led. But there is so much more. A true leader is someone who engenders enough trust that people will follow him or her “into the fog.” It is someone who has a vision and who can illuminate the path in a way that others can readily see it and that causes them to want to follow the same path.
But the path down which people are being led is critical. True leaders do not seek to be leaders; they are sought as leaders. They lead not out of a quest for power, but on a mission to help others become good leaders themselves. They are highly self-aware. They know their strengths and, especially, their weaknesses. They actively seek assistance and guidance from others because they are not ashamed or defensive about their weaknesses. And they accept the fact that those they seek to lead have their own flaws and weaknesses.
Among the things that leadership is not, is characterizing that one has all the answers. Not only is that grossly dishonest, it is the work of a demagogue.
Anyone can tell people what to do. But are those people growing as persons? Or are they merely robots being told what to do? The goal should be the former; the latter is unsustainable and implies that those being led have no imagination or creativity and cannot think for themselves.
Anyone could lead perfect people … if there were any.