Leadership and the Reality Conundrum
What is leadership and how is it defined? What does it mean to be a leader and how does one lead anyone anywhere? More importantly, why would anyone want to?
Recently, I have been a participant in a course on leadership entitled “The Leadership Challenge”. Sponsored by Capital One, Bank the program takes a group of community leaders and instructs them on the five practices of exemplary leadership. Said practices include: 1) modeling of the way, 2) inspiring a shared vision, 3) challenging the process, 4) enabling others to act and 5) encouraging the heart.
There is no dearth of leadership programs and I have seen more than a few. Many such efforts merely scratch the “leadership” surface. Most run the gamut from reasonably good to God awful. Not so the program in question. This is by far the best.
Significant attention has been devoted to developing a comprehensive program curriculum. The instructors are first rate, program participants are equipped with practical tools and strategies and the program environment is conducive to learning. In addition, the perspectives, the dialog and the experiences shared by all involved are invaluable.
More notably, the program caused me to engage in some much needed introspection. First, I am required to be substantially more positive. Second, a thicker skin and a greater level of emotional security is a must. Equally as important and always a core consideration of any such gathering, we ate well, very well indeed. I simply can’t say enough about the effort.
Nevertheless, as good as the program is I can’t help but feel that something is missing. For example, there are the various styles of leadership, e.g., telling, selling, participating and delegating. There is also the matter of situational leadership. Furthermore, the program did not address the subtle and not so subtle nuances of leadership, makes no suggestions for how to produce a new generation of leaders and offers not enough regarding the dark side of leadership.
While this is an observation, not a criticism, these are matters of great importance. Assuming the mantle of leadership is no easy tasks. Yet, all too often we romanticize if not glamorize the role. We make leadership seem like a picnic, a photo shoot, a walk in the park when in reality it is anything but. The burdens of leadership are many.
Leadership like fame is fleeting if not illusionary. It last for a short time and is then gone – seldom if ever to return. Many are not leaders at all. They just think they are. Someone else is calling the shots. Someone else is pulling the strings.
There is the loss of privacy and piece of mind. Your life is an open book and there is no off switch. Overexposure notwithstanding, the spotlight is always on.
There is the fatigue, the discomfort and the insecurity of leadership. Always on guard, forever looking over your shoulder is no way to live. And even if you don’t want the crown, you still have to maintain your dignity in losing it. The bitter disappointments and crushing defeats, the isolation and loneliness and the bone weary exhaustion that comes with leadership can still the stoutest of hearts.
More existentially, leadership can be deadly, often requiring the ultimate sacrifice. It is no surprise and little wonder that from Martin Luther King to John F. Kennedy to Robert Kennedy to Malcolm X to James A. Garfield to William McKinney to Abraham Lincoln to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette of France, to the Pharaohs of timeless Egypt and the Emperors of ancient Rome, many leaders are dispatched, frequently by their own followers.
One 3rd Century Roman Emperor in particular, Elagabalus bears witness to this truth. Elagabalus was murdered by his aunt and grandmother as he relieved himself on the “porcelain throne”. His dead, naked, nasty behind was then dragged through the streets of Rome and thrown in the Tiber River. So much for the loyalties, privileges and veneration of leadership.
Additionally, there is the conundrum of reality. A conundrum is a riddle, a mystery, a puzzle, an enigma. According to the aforementioned Leadership Program there are twenty universally recognized characteristics of an admired leader. Out of these twenty characteristics, the four most admired are honesty, a forward looking attitude, competence and an inspiring personality. Perhaps!
But these are not the characteristics we as a society reward. What we value, what we incentivize with the best things in life including but not limited to money and adoration are notoriety, fame, egotism, attitude, self obsession, self promotion, self indulgence, self aggrandizement, success, privilege and to no small degree, ruthlessness.
Compare how we treat school teachers who use their own meager paychecks to pay for school supplies with how we lionize athletes whose only contribution to the world is their ability to carry an oblong, painted and laced fake pigskin over a white line.
Contrast how we recompense the lowly but honest waitress at minimum wage plus tips to the riches we bestow upon celebrities who are famous for merely being famous.
Consider the difference between the maid and the starlet, the carpenter and the heir, the social worker and the politician or the bus driver and the Wall Street fund manager who is wealthy beyond belief because he’s good at manipulating other people’s money.
And contrary to the propaganda, corporate America neither respects nor tolerates leaders. Like the Fritz Lange’s 1927 movie “Metropolis” corporate culture demands mindless drones marching in lockstep to their programming, totally incapable of doing anything but following orders.
The cold reality is that what gets rewarded gets done and the conundrum of reality is that leaders will not be honest, forward looking, inspiring or competent if these attributes are not remunerated. Potential leaders cannot and will not fly much less soar if their wings are constantly being clipped. This disconnect, this cognitive dissonance is crucial to understanding why our leaders fail us and why we fail them.
Most of our leaders do not advance us and do nothing to earn our allegiance. At best they entertain and comfort us. At worst they pit us against each other for their continued benefit and our lasting detriment. Our unquestioned loyalty and obedience to them is akin to bestowing our affection on someone who doesn’t appreciate us and then wondering why we are not appreciated.
Yes, the aforementioned leadership training is excellent. However, it is the honest, full and complete analysis of leadership that adds depth, width, breath, dimension and context to our understanding of what it means to be a leader. Absent this fundamental honesty, sans an exploration of the burdens of leadership, without considering the conundrum of reality, both we and our society suffer.
Leo Barron Hicks, Founder and CEO, Blackacre Policy Forum, LLC