What makes a great leader and why is great leadership important? Leadership, like many things and many words in the universe of words, especially that universe which resides in the U.S. of A., has as many definitions as there are people. I won’t bore you with a list, I’ll just gift you with the best of the bunch.
The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey is a world-renowned resource that’s been practiced and preached about by people from all walks of life and all manner of positions, from presidents to playwrights, from students to scientists, and everyone anywhere on the spectrum of people. In fact, anyone who hasn’t at least skimmed this book should stop reading immediately and go find and read it. I mean it.
The most recent version published is the 25th Anniversary edition, and it includes a bonus intro provided by Mr. Covey’s children (he had 9 of them, see below), who wrote a lovely and loving tribute to a father who practiced what he preached, never forgot his family was his number one priority and never allowed anything to get in the way of that.
Stephen Richards Covey and his wife Sandra; parents of nine children, 52 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. (Covey family photo thanks to KCSG TV; read more at KCSG Television – Funeral for Stephen Covey Author of 7 Habits Saturday)
In this tribute to their dad, they shared his definition of leadership; a definition that they had heard countless times throughout their lives. Mr. Covey, genius that he was, gave us the following gem:
Leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves.
His brother, John Covey, said that he had always been “that way.” Whenever he was asked what he wanted to do, his response was, “I want to release human potential.”
That, my friends, is what I hold as the true definition of leadership. It’s not about you, it’s about what you can do to help those you lead realize their power and their untapped potential.
It’s about giving your people enough rope to swing, but not hang themselves.
It’s about instilling in them a confidence in themselves that they’ll carry forth throughout their life like a priceless heirloom tucked into their heart.
It’s confirming the knowledge that they are valued and valuable and that mistakes are meant to be made, shoot — learning doesn’t happen without them!
Leadership is noticing the straggler at the back of the bunch falling further behind and instead of embarrassing what is obviously a timid and unsure soul or just one having a bad day, leadership is getting one of your “front row sitters” to take over the marching counts so you can join the straggler at the back to see how their day’s going and have they heard any good jokes lately.
A great leader helps our straggler uncover the reason they’re falling behind or feeling left behind, why their straggling – and struggling, and then helps them let it go
It sounds so simple, right? A little chat, a kind word or twenty; it’s what is meant by the term “quality time.” When you care enough to spend it, people realize that they’re worth it. You don’t have be made of steel to have the power to change a life.
Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around. –Leo Buscaglia
Leadership has historically been confused and wrongly categorized with dictatorship. I mean, there have been extremely rare cases where the 2 have, indeed, coexisted, hence the term “Benevolent Dictator (“BD”),” but this is way, totally way, the exception and not the rule. Although…I see how a BD – in theory – can work…
Let’s be honest here and admit that the majority of the human race is, well, sheep. Most people graze along, nudged here and there but not really making the call on the final destination, just going along with the crowd, assuming that someone knows where they’re going.
Of course, you can’t have sheep without wolves, right? You’ve got your wolves in the mix, some dressed up like sheep, some full on wolf face-raw, and I bet there are some that don’t even realize they’re wolves. Think about that for a second.
Most of these wolves are nefarious tricksters and would, if allowed, guide as many sheep as possible to their demise, aka their cozy little cave for “dinner.” Of course, the trusting sheep never ask to see the menu and the devious wolf doesn’t think it’s important to mention the teeny tiny fact that the sheep are dinner.
Sheep want, some even need, to follow something, someone, anyone. They need inspiration and guidance for whatever their reasons might be. Many are so desperate, they jump on the first bandwagon with an “I know the way” bumper sticker, paying no heed to the suspicious red droplets lining the wagon bed or that white fluffy curl hanging from the driver’s lip. And they are never heard from again. A casualty of the casual.
The story wouldn’t be complete without the existence of the true shepherds; the ones who just brought the sheep out for a nice walk and some fresh meadow to chew on; who patiently wait and watch for the bandwagon bullshitters, fending them off like the famous David did Goliath.
These shepherds understand the mindset of the sheep, they know that sheep need someone to tell them what’s best for them and they also know that someone will do it, even if they don’t. Someone whose intentions are the opposite of well-meaning.
The Shepherd in our story? That’s how the BD could and has worked. Singapore is a perfect example. The late Lee Kuan Yew is our most recent (known) BD. Sure, in the beginning there was some ugliness and bloodshed, but not nearly as much as a civil or other war would have caused, right?
Here is a great piece from the NY Times on Mr. Lee (there are some related links on the page that are also interesting, if you’re interested :). In a time when his country, his people, were at the mercy of some really bad dudes who had no one but their own interest in mind, Mr. Lee stepped up, put on the robes, picked up the stick and shook out the bullshit. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t always pretty, but the ends certainly give the means better sway.
What about our sad, unstable USA today? It’s actually pretty sad and almost comical, except for the fact that this is NOT an SNL skit, it’s real life. It’s no wonder that I (and most US citizens) don’t see the current POTUS as our leader, but in all honesty, with no disrespect in any way intended to former persons that have occupied this station, the POTUS has never been a position that I looked to for leadership. In our country, politicians, which include the president, seem so far removed from my world and things that I worry about and look forward to, that their position feels as if it has no organic connection to me, only a bureaucratic one that rarely does me any good.
It may be because I feel so separate, being the one state that’s not connected to the rest of the states. It could be because I’ve never had much respect for most politicians. I don’t mean I’m some crazy revolutionary person, I just feel like things in and around the oval office have spun out so far that no one remembers what color the white house should be called. That’s not a typo.
I could go on forever, the sad cycle and associated chaos provides ample subject matter, but *sigh* I won’t. In fact, I should be wrapping things up here.
So, leadership is putting someone else not above you or behind you, it’s jogging next to them when they’ve fallen behind and helping them find their second wind and watching them proudly cross the finish line.
It’s showing those around you, whether you’re officially their leader or not, what you see in them and that what you see in them is their awesomeness.
It’s practicing what you preach.
It’s putting yourself in someone else’s life – not just their shoes – and seeing things from a perspective other than your own and being able to sync the two to a point where you can explain things to them in their terms so they can live a life that’s on their terms.
It’s knowing the difference between tough love and being an asshole.
And you know what else? Great leaders create great leaders. Lord knows we need more of those.
In my life, I shied away from leadership because I thought it was too much responsibility for people who would most likely not appreciate it and perhaps not respect it. Sure, I pretended that it was because I was “too cool” for that or whatever lame reason I thought of in the moment, but in reality, and without being truly conscious of it, I’ve realized that I’ve always been a leader. It’s in my nature to nurture, to guide, to help, to find the silver lining, to see the good and pull it out into the light, to make people laugh in tense or difficult situations, and to always search for a way that everyone feels like a winner. I think I just didn’t realize that what I was doing was being a leader and that it felt right.
All of us have the capacity to be leaders. You know what? You are already a leader – in your family unit, in your workplace, in your group of compadres. You lead a lot more than you know. Even if you think you’re a quiet wall flower that hardly ever says more than 2 words, I’m sure there’s at least one person who would say that you lead with your quiet constance and your steady presence.
Be mindful of this.
Be proud of this.
And do your best to make good choices because someone, whether you know it or not, is looking to you for direction. Be the light. Be the hope. Be part of the solution – or you’re just a part of the problem. Be someone who you would be proud to know. You’ll never regret it.