Leadership. We all know we need it, and we think we know it when we see it. Yet time and again many wonder why we're so bad at picking good people to be our leaders. Certainly it's true that the majority of those chosen to lead in our public and private world do so successfully. Sadly, those success stories are rarely reported. Instead, it's the failure of our leaders that grab our attention, sometimes leaving us shocked and disappointed.
Ronald Reagan may have said it best during his first inaugural address as Governor of California when he said: "If no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?"
We live in a time of great skepticism -- even cynicism -- about leaders and leadership. Perhaps it's because when judging those who aspire to be our leaders we are more focused on their charm, resume and academic credentials. Is this really all it takes or is it that these objective standards can be so compelling that it blinds us to the real qualities someone should have to be a successful leader? Is there a way in the selection process to assess those subjective elements of character such as integrity, courage, authenticity, empathy and humility that have proven over time to be the real assets of a good leader?
Those looking to select leaders often develop thorough vetting processes; they hire professional headhunters, and they put aspiring leaders through multiple tests, interviews and reference checks. Do these give us the full character profile and potential weaknesses that could come back to embarrass and anger those who thought they had found the right one?
How often, after a leader is chosen, do we discover that he or she has poor judgment with social behavior, a dysfunctional family or personal life, or has psychological issues of depression, narcissism, self-aggrandizement or an overly aggressive personality? These and other underlying character traits seem to be all it takes for our confidence in our chosen leader to collapse.
Most can agree on what we want from our leaders. If there is one quality of leaders that is a "must have," it's integrity -- a word derived from the Latin for "whole" or "complete".
As Stephen Covey explains in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: "Integrity includes but goes beyond honesty. Honesty is telling the truth -- in other words, conforming our words to reality. Integrity is conforming reality to our words -- in other words, keeping promises and fulfilling expectations. This requires an integrated character, a oneness, primarily with self but also with life."
Along with integrity, leaders must have courage and authenticity. Courage is not "sticking ones finger in the air to see which way the political winds blow" or "I'll talk to as many people as I can but I end up doing what the last person I talk to suggests."
According to Winston Churchill, courage is "the rightly esteemed first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all the others." It's what Napoleon called moral courage, which is necessary on unexpected occasions, in spite of the most unforeseen events.
When one takes into account the development of the strong traits of character, it becomes clear that every leader, regardless of background, is -- in a sense -- self-made. At the same time, those who are the most effective are also the most authentic. This authenticity makes others comfortable investing a high degree of trust in the leader. It is the source of believability. In this age of "spin doctors," "message specialists," "handlers," "public relations specialists" and "image makers," you're never quite sure if what you see is what you'll get. Even a bad steak has a lot of sizzle.
Along with integrity, courage and authenticity, leaders must have empathy and humility. To effectively lead you have to have developed a knack of putting yourself in someone else's shoes. It helps you relate better to others and perhaps understand why they think as they do and why they do what they do.
The television program Undercover Boss is a perfect example of leaders who believe when they go "undercover" they will learn how their companies can operate better. Instead, they are surprised to find themselves touched by the personal stories and dedication of their employees. For a time, they have walked in the shoes of another. As a result, the companies change for the better, not just because of employee suggestions, but because the boss feels empathy and his priorities change. His or her empathy for the employees overtakes the hard-line approach of only looking at the bottom line, and they realize what really matters and what's really important in leading their company.
Given the immense self-confidence and self-discipline which is often associated with leadership at high levels, some might not immediately recognize humility as an important personal trait for leaders.
Dwight Eisenhower in the immediate aftermath of the Allied victory in Europe said, "Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in the blood of his followers and the sacrifices of his friends." A self-assured, humble leader gives thanks and recognition to those whose sacrifices and hard work have made him a success. His self-confidence allows him to recognize those who should get the credit, to reward those who are serving with loyalty and to remember it's not always about just the leader.
Leaders who solely take credit for others good deeds exhibit a self-centeredness born of insecurity that will not serve the leader well nor insure continued loyal service or contribution.
For those who bear the responsibilities of selecting leaders, perhaps these are the qualities that should be searched for, going beyond the charm, resume and credentials to find real life examples of integrity, courage, empathy and humility from those we select as leaders.
No process is fail proof. Leaders do and will fail us. But it's what's on the inside and what comprises a person's character history that can be a much better predictor of what type of future leader they will be and we will get.
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