Musings on Leadership

Photo by Kobu Agency on Unsplash

I subscribed, a couple of weeks ago, to a product marketed to “leaders”, or those who hope to be leaders. The content looked interesting, and it has indeed been well worth the investment of time and treasure–but I’m also reminded of my deep ambivalence about “leadership”.

Niccolo Machiavelli, in the 15th and 16th century, had some powerful insights about how to exercise a kind of leadership. My memory of The Prince is vague, but one bit of advice surfaces (likely imperfectly) from memory as particularly wise counsel. A prince, he said, should not harm potential opponents in ways from which they can recover. Either leave them in peace, or destroy them; don’t leave them hurt, insulted, and able to avenge themselves. It’s wise advice, effective for the prince who wishes to retain power, and quite possibly good for his kingdom, in the stability it provides. It’s also quite “cold”, and the negative associations of Machiavelli’s name today are not entirely without reason.

Jim Jones was a highly successful leader, if one looks at the depths of his followers’ commitment. Demagogues, from the ancient world to the present, have often been successful, building broad, passionate support and stamping the world deeply with their imprints. Preachers wealthy from “shearing” their flocks are, by some standards, successful influencers. The captain and the chaplain behind the massacre at Mystic were quite effective in leading others to fulfill their objectives.

The thing is, leadership isn’t inherently positive. Influence, vision, motivation, strategy, changemaking, persuasion, and efficacy can all be horrible things.

A lot of leaders shouldn’t be leading. Many are leading toward harmful goals. Many are “leading” for the side benefits: the prestige, the identity validation, the economic gain. And some lead with positive goals, but lead poorly, negating the value they might offer to humanity.

Could it be that leadership would benefit from being a profession, with gated admission, a code of ethics, and competency requirements? “Mr. Smith, after reviewing your objectives and actions and surveying your colleagues, the review board has imposed a mandatory suspension of your leadership responsibilities and influence. An application for resumption will be considered if submitted within three months. The application should include both a demonstration of the social good of your objectives and a specific plan for remediation of the issues addressed in the attachment.”

A “leadership profession” is hardly likely, to be sure, and probably a bad idea. But how might things change if each of us established a “review board” inside their head? This “board” would enforce a basic set of leadership standards on ourselves, and coach us through improvement when we fail. When others “betray the leadership profession”, we’d help them redirect, or work to de-legitimize them as leaders if they reject such standards? How would we keep that ethos from turning into a circular firing squad?

What would a foundational set of leadership standards look like? Is a shared set of standards even possible?

I don’t know. I do think, though, that a story about Jesus sheds light for me. The story goes that his apprentices were with him, and jockeying among themselves for status. And Jesus sees this happening (they were all together), and he gets up, grabs a towel, and starts washing the besandaled, road-dirty feet of every one of his apprentices who were with him. The teacher, stooping in front of each apprentice and scrubbing his polluted feet! They were, of course, appalled, even shamed, that he was doing this to them. And then he told them: “You know that those who lead ‘out there’ can do whatever they want, and other people call them great and good. But among you–someone who is ‘great’ will be a servant to others.”

What does a foundational set of leadership standards look like? What distinguishes a good leader from one who shouldn’t lead? How might we, collectively, increase the prevalence of beneficial, competent leadership?

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