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 their top three charities.  Once someone reveals where they freely and enthusiastically give their money, you can begin to understand what makes them tick.

Another friend says that the five most played songs in someone's iTunes account go a long way toward describing their inner life.

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, and if you remember that year, you might also remember bookstores.  These giant buildings were full of shelves stacked with real books.  If you had browsed the "Business" section of one of these places in 1994, you would have been overwhelmed with books about leadership.  More than any single topic, people seemed to want to know how to lead.

John Maxwell was selling 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 which, in Dale Carnegie's world, must be won and influenced.  "We have long lists of the leader's requisites," Wills wrote. "He or she needs 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."

I was at a Gettysburg Foundation meeting last week, talking with a group about our organization's leadership programs.  There is no better place in the world to understand the elements of leadership than on the battlefield at Gettysburg.  Someone noted, however, that "We have all these great programs about leadership.  We could sure use a few that teach followership."

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 suggest 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. 

Books in a bookstore, just in case you need reminding
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."

This seems like an important understanding as we head into 2017.  Followers hold all the cards.

Tell me where you give your money and I can know you better.  Share your favorite music and I will learn even more.   But show me your leader, and you have bared your soul.