Leadership and Character
Many would argue that the political divide has never been as wide as it is today. And some would also argue that for that very reason the need for good leadership could not possibly be greater. So why does this essential commodity seems so woefully lacking in our times? As you might expect, the evidence points to character.
What makes a a good leader? Social scientists of various persuasions have been studying this very question for a long time. But it turns out that even the concept of leadership is not as easy to define as you might think. And, as you might suspect, styles of leadership vary considerably. Moreover, cultures vary in what people expect of their leaders. So, it’s a lot easier to say what leadership isn’t than it is to define exactly what it is.
Are Leaders Born or Made?
We’ve all heard someone referred to as a “born leader.” But evidence suggests no one is endowed by nature with good leadership ability. A person might indeed have some personality traits and predispositions that improve their odds for effectively leading (e.g., organizational ability, sociability, the charisma to motivate and influence, etc.). But leadership skill is just that: a set of acquired habits (i.e. skill) that also has to be developed. Raw talent helps, to be sure. But even the most relevant talents have to be both nurtured and refined if one is going become an effective leader.
Leadership, Power, and Influence
Leadership is not synonymous with power. You can acquire power over people in all sorts of ways. That includes outright coercion and covert manipulation. True leadership is more than wielding power. Strong leaders have the power to influence and motivate. They also have the skills organize and unite. Leaders do more than take action; they mobilize others into action. They inspire. And they galvanize.
Good and Bad Leadership
Leadership is not an inherently positive skill. History is replete with examples of leaders who led their country’s families, businesses, and even their critical social and political institutions into ruin. History is also full of examples of astute leaders who secured immense personal gain at the expense of those they purported to serve. Just as a good leader can be key to the success of an enterprise, so can a bad leader be the instrument of true disaster. So, being a positive leader isn’t just about having the requisite skills. Ultimately, it’s about character.
Leaders Depend on the Assent of Those Led
Leaders never do what they do alone. Sure, we turn to our leaders for direction and guidance. But even the most skilled and influential leaders have to depend on both the consent and cooperation (albeit unwitting sometimes) of those they lead. Demagogues know this well. And they know how to to appeal to the fears, insecurities, prejudices, and yearnings of those they seek lead. The formula is simple: promise folks what you know they want, convince them you can deliver, and the’ll surrender power to you.
The leadership drought we find ourselves experiencing extends beyond our politics. It affects our board room decision, our civic organizations, even our marriages. And, of course, it’s an outgrowth of our character crisis. But if there were ever a time we needed strong, principled leaders, it’s now. Still, history has taught us some poignant lessons about what can happen when we don’t have people of integrity leading us. And the biggest lesson of all is that noble leadership can only arise out of good character.
You’ll find a lot more on character, influence, and power in my book Character Disturbance. And I’ll be talking more about this topic on Character Matters. The program will air live Sunday, December 3, at 7 pm Eastern Time. Call in at (501) 258-8326 to join the conversation.