Monday, November 21, 2016

Show Me Your Leader And You Have Bared Your Soul

A friend of mine who works in non-profit fundraising says the best way to learn about a person is to ask about his or her top three charities.  Once someone reveals where they freely and enthusiastically give their money, you can quickly understand what makes them tick.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gary Wills has another way of sizing up people. "Show me your leader," Wills wrote in Certain Trumpets," and you have bared your soul."

Willis offered his book about leadership in 1994, a year brimming with leadership advice. John Maxwell offered Developing the Leader Within You and Leadership 101. Stephen Covey was flogging Principle-Centered Leadership. Max DePree's Leadership As An Art was selling well.  Warren Bennis's On Becoming a Leader drew on hundreds of interviews to try to define the inner qualities of leadership.  And, after 450 years, Machiavelli's The Prince--"it is much safer to be feared than loved"--still had its enthusiastic disciples.

Wills boiled the existing literature down to the description of two types of leaders.  The first was the "superior-person" model which said the leader must become worthy of being followed.  The second was the "ingratiating" leader who treated followers as customers that must be won and influenced.  "We have long lists of the leader's requisites," Wills wrote, including  "determination, focus, a clear goal, a sense of priorities, and so on. We easily forget the first and all-encompassing need.  The leader most needs followers."

Wills has a typically elegant way of saying this:  It is not the noblest call that gets answered, he writes, but the answerable call.  In other words, followers have a say in what they are being led to do. His title adapts I Corinthians 14:8 when he says "A certain trumpet means sounding a specific call to specific people capable of response."

That suggests there is no superman leader who can bring a common set of skills to every occasion and expect success.   Leadership is specific and situational.  Leaders arise only around a shared goal with a willing set of followers. 

Wills writes about "electoral" leadership and features Franklin Roosevelt.  He writes about "radical" leadership in Harriet Tubman, "charismatic" leadership in King David, "artistic" leadership in Martha Graham, and includes a chapter on "business" leadership featuring Ross Perot and the anti-leader of the times, Roger Smith of General Motors.  The author is underwhelmed by some of the tactics used by business leaders.  "Many of the employers' claims of leadership are insulting to workers," he writes, including "the claims that 'we are all one family.'"

Wills also includes a chapter on the "opportunistic" leader, highlighting Cesare Borgia.  "The charm of the rogue leader is undeniable," Wills says, because even an immoral leader advances the good of his followers. "Follow me and I will make you rich" is what the followers hear, although what the opportunistic leader might really mean is "follow me and I will make me rich."

In every case, it works both ways:  Leaders get the followers they deserve.  Followers get the leaders they deserve.  Agreement on common goals is always essential.  Ultimately, however, followers hold all the cards.  "You respond only to one who has set certain goals," Willis concludes.  "You are responsible for that activity, for motion toward those goals."  It's a good lesson to remember in the pandemic, riots, and election of 2020: we hold all the cards.

Tell me where you give your money and I can know you better. But show me your leader, and you have bared your soul.

(Refresh and repost 6/1/20)

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