Why Our Choice of Leaders Matters

Charles P. Edwards

Most books on leadership focus on the traits of great leaders, usually concluding they have three common traits: humility, empathy, and integrity. (Some add courage, but there is a fine line between courageous and stubborn). Fair enough. But, these are traits of great leaders; they say nothing about how one becomes a leader.

The great leadership equation does not work in reverse. The intern in the mailroom who wants to be CEO isn’t necessarily going to accomplish that by having humility, empathy or integrity. A person with these traits has no greater chance of becoming a leader than does the greatest tyrant. The tyrant may, in fact, have a better chance, because he or she can simply bully his or her way to the top. Once there, does it really matter if the person shows humility, empathy or integrity?

It might matter to shareholders of an organization whether it has a great leader, but they don’t necessarily define great by the great leader equation. Investors generally only care if the value of their stock increases; they don’t much care if the leader shows the traits of a great leader. A lot of investors have been willing to put up with a lot of terrible behavior in the name of returns.

The Celtics’ basketball coach Brad Stevens is widely regarded as possessing all of the great leadership traits. But, if Stevens’ teams didn’t win he would either be back working at Eli Lilly, or he would be the most humble, empathetic and ethical high school basketball coach in the State of Indiana. Even Jesus needed a few miracles.

Jesus also needed disciples. A person doesn’t get to be a leader, or doesn’t stay one for long, without disciples. It is these disciples who should receive most of the credit for promoting great leaders and most of the blame for promoting terrible leaders. While there are leaders of various movements today across all spectrums — from MAGA to #MeToo and many others — those leaders are nothing without their disciples. If the troops don’t follow the general up the hill, he’s unlikely to be general for long.

Not all of us have the traits to be a great leader, but each of us has the ability and responsibility to be a good disciple. Humans have survived and flourished by organizing into productive groups. Those groups occasionally clash, but, to date, they have not completely eliminated each other or destroyed the planet. Our first job, if we want to stay a species, is to make sure that continues to be the case.

This is where the great leadership equation comes into play for all of us. If we know from history and experience that the great leaders possess humility, empathy and integrity, we need to exercise our power as disciples to champion people with those traits. There will be roadblocks, as individuals put other individuals into positions of power that do not possess these traits, or as powerful people trade or bully their way to the top. When that happens, it is our job as disciples to object and to exercise whatever power we have to push our organizations toward better leadership.

We also must be careful to distinguish great ideas from great leadership. There is no correlation between the two. Ideas rarely take off on their own, or in the hands of one person; they require disciples take root and grow. For too long, the disciples of great ideas have worshiped the ideas and idea-makers without paying attention to the great leadership traits. Much of the recent upheaval in Hollywood and Silicon Valley appears to reflect an awakening to this fact. But in many cases the counter-revolutions are just ideas themselves; and it is equally important not to blindly worship these ideas and these idea-makers simply because they are counter-revolutionary.

As disciples, we should ask ourselves first whether an idea is a good one. But, then we should ask ourselves who the best person is to put the idea into practice. That person may or may not possess all of the great leadership traits (most of us do not), but ask whether the person has the raw materials to become a great leader. If so, we should be a good disciple to that person and help the person refine those traits, along with the idea. If not, we must ask whether there is a way to promote the idea without promoting the person, or whether the idea is worth promoting in the hands of this person.

Many will say this is not possible; but history proves otherwise. It may require a strong moral compass, sacrifice, and courage, but it is possible. There are many leaders at the helm of organizations today who factor the great leadership traits into their decisions. And, when they do not, there are ways for the rest of us to make sure they do. Recently, 20,000 Google employees walked off their jobs to protest the company’s perceived practice of covering up sexual harassment.

Some might say that Google employees are unicorns, and doubt that employees outside major technology companies could exert much influence over their companies’ practices. But, history is filled with examples of average disciples elevating great leaders. Average people elevated Gandhi, MLK, Mandela, and others to positions of leadership. Of course, average people also elevated Hitler to power. To paraphrase the great prophet Yoda, choose wisely, we must.

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Originally published at cpereflections.wordpress.com on November 18, 2018.

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Charles Edwards

Charles Edwards

Lawyer, writer, husband, father, Stoic, and outdoor enthusiast - not necessarily in that order.