Recently there has been a lot of discussion about leaders in the media, who is and who isn’t. Especially in the political arena, both domestically and abroad, there have been cries of everyone having an opinion but no one leading. Our political “leaders” are anything but, as they seem to do nothing but create more fear than if they kept their mouths shut and their faces off camera. Yet, if you ask ten people to define leadership or what makes a good leader, you will get ten different definitions.
What Leaders Really Do
John P. Kotter, a world renowned organizational behavior professor at Harvard Business School wrote one of the most widely accepted examinations of the difference between leadership and management in a 1990 issue of the Harvard Business Review titled What Leaders Really Do. It is a long and detailed discussion about how leadership and management are complimentary, and how together they make an organization stronger.
“Leadership is about coping with change,” states Kotter. With this I agree. Change often entails uncertainty, and uncertainty causes fear, which uncontrolled, can lead to panic. However, I feel Mr. Kotter misses the mark somewhat overall. His basic thesis is that, “Leadership is different from management, but not for the reasons most people think. Leadership isn’t mystical and mysterious. It has nothing to do with having “charisma” or other exotic personality traits. It is not the province of a chosen few.” He implies here and throughout his article that anyone can stand up and lead. I disagree.
Fundamentally, to be a leader one must be comfortable enough with him/herself to charge forward in the face of uncertainty and fear and present a sense of calm, collected control of the situation to everyone else in the organization (or nation). Leadership requires a level of physical and moral courage that escapes most, courage to make decisions which will have repercussions across the spectrum of the organization; decisions which will affect people’s lives in some way.
Carrying the Burden of Leadership
Leadership comes at an often significant cost to the leader, carrying the burden of decisions which may go against the leader’s best interests, which may affect the ability of employees to feed their families, which may call for the sacrifice of the leader’s most cherished possessions to get the best outcome for the organization. In politics this may be someone’s pet project or a guaranteed vote getter like social security; in the military it may mean sending one of your men to his certain death to seize an objective; and in business it may mean laying off hundreds or thousands of employees to save the company from insolvency.
The burdens of leadership are terrible, and it takes an individual with a strong disposition, a strong moral compass, and a strong understanding of his/her environment to be able to shoulder that burden because there will always be others who question the leader’s decisions, armchair quarterbacking from the safety of the Op/Ed column, or the cries of outrage from the masses.
Belief in a Cause
One of the reasons we cherish and follow leaders is that leaders believe in their cause, and believe that their course of action will have the best overall outcome for the organization. They project this faith to their followers. If a leader does not believe in his/her cause, then that person is not a leader at all. Faith that theirs is the best solution given the circumstances is a fundamental facet of leadership. Leaders must believe in an idea for followers to believe in their leaders. Humans are smart enough to tell when their leader doesn’t believe in their cause, and it demoralizes them. The result is an erosion of the fibers of the organization.
If leadership were attainable by all, then there would be no one to be a follower. Epic stories are told of leaders taking on seemingly insurmountable challenges that the majority of the population shies away from in fear – fear of ridicule, fear of death, fear of failure. Often the “hero” is ridiculed and written off as a fool for even trying to best the seemingly wicked problem, only to be celebrated and revered after having “slain the dragon.” I hesitate to point to historical examples as I don’t want to turn this argument into a political debate, but I feel there is an example in most of our lifetimes that I can point to which evidence shows clearly the impacts of having a successful leader.
Ronald Reagan was a very charismatic man with a calm, confident demeanor, and he seized the following of a nation floundering in crises with no real direction in 1980. The nation was suffering from economic recession, inflating energy prices, and national embarrassment on the world stage after the Iran Hostage Crisis’ failed rescue mission and military fiasco was brought to the public light.
Reagan projected such an aura that he won the election by a landslide rarely seen before with 489 Electoral College votes to Jimmy Carter’s 49. Reagan carried all but six states and the District of Columbia. He then went on to defy U.S. conventional wisdom economic policy of Keynesian spending and executed vast tax cuts across the board. He also took a firm stance with the Soviet Republic, and built up the military.
His actions launched “Reaganomics” and the “Reagan Revolution” which were essentially policies which led to a time of strong growth in real incomes and productivity across the country. Reagan was unapologetic for his beliefs, so much so that it nearly cost him his life as he was shot through the chest in an attempted assassination just 69 days into his first term. He not only recovered physically, but publicly forgave the man who shot him. Instead of cowering in fear, he continued to put himself out amongst the public, unwavering in his resolve. Reagan went on to win his second term in the 1984 election by carrying 49 of the 50 states in the Union, only ceding Minnesota and Washington DC.
Regardless of his policies, Ronald Reagan is an indisputable example of a true leader. He believed in his cause, even after it nearly cost him his life. He believed in the inherent good of the nation, and inspired Americans to grow their prosperity. Because he believed, and was willing to risk his credibility, his namesake, his life – Ronald Reagan inspired Americans and made them believe in him, and in themselves.
Can You Be a Leader?
So who can be a leader? Looking at Mr. Kotter’s thesis again, I believe you can – but only if you are willing to accept the burdens of leadership, and have the fortitude to journey into the unknown for a cause greater than yourself. History shows that most people are not willing to take such a leap of faith, and for good reason. There have been few times in our lifetimes where we have faced so much uncertainty, and there are billions of people out there who are looking to someone to step up and give them something to believe in.
Will they believe in you?