Much (way too much) has been written on leadership in the last 20 years. I once followed a leadership guru in the faith-based arena. He has dozens of books on leadership that have been printed over the years. At this point in my life, I am willing to concede that there are likely less than 20 books on leadership and the rest are simple rehashes of the same nonsensical drivel. As Solomon once said, “there is nothing new under the sun.”
There is also a growing disparity between what is empirically, factually true about leadership and what humans are willing to believe about leadership. I have attended my fair share of leadership development seminars. In fact, my post-graduate work is in Educational Leadership. What most people are willing to believe about leadership is that it is relational, anecdotal, and dynamic. It is not uncommon to hear the gurus cite the “traits of great leaders” in sessions across the globe, while listeners thumb the statements into their iPads with the hopes that by simply typing the words we might assimilate the trait itself. Or walk away believing that leadership traits can be obtained by a sheer act of the human will. Nonsense. Yet, millions of dollars are made each year by the same exhausted list of presenters.
I recently saw a presentation for leaders in a specific area of non-profits tasked with raising money for unfortunately children in foreign countries. The presentation started with a stark and drastic statement:
“He alone, who owns the youth, controls the future.” -Adolf Hitler
The statement was designed to impact the viewer. The major thrust of the presentation was that if we, the “good guys,” could get to the children first, the WE could control the future. When the statement flashed on the screen with the ominous music in the background, there was an audible, corporate moan across the room as everyone, including myself, was gripped by the statement.
I thought about the statement for days after the presentation and even quoted it here and there to educators to see their reactions. It was a powerful truth! But I sat and pondered it for a few minutes when it hit me–it is not true. In fact, had the statement been true, then Hitler would still be controlling the future. But what we want to, or are willing to allow ourselves to believe about Hitler is more often not as accurate as the facts or who and what this powerful, charismatic, and failed leader really was.
What is a leader?
So, what is a leader? Put simply, someone who has people following them. You remember playing the game as a child: Follow the Leader. I loved that game! I would get a tickle in my stomach when the host of kids in our neighborhood would wander around single file doing as the leader did. How did we choose the leader as children? We would like to think we all took turns. But think harder. Is that way it really was? As a school principal I have watched it unfold MANY times. The leader is the one student who can out voice, out last, or simply assert themselves over the rest. And at first everyone roves around nicely while they follow their demanding leader–until the leader decides it is his or her mission to lose the followers. You remember now–jump a ravine, climb a really tall tree, go where others dare not to go to see if the followers will follow, with the intent to prove your superior abilities over the rest of your peers. What has changed?
We hear the mantra all the time: “a leader is a visionary, a pathfinder, a navigator, willing to go where others fear to tread, to blaze the trail and chart the course… blah blah blah blah blah.” This is not necessarily untrue, but certainly is true of some leaders. Most military officers who make Lieutenant Colonel or higher did not get their by bucking the system, charting their own course, and dreaming their way into leadership. On the contrary, they arrived at their highly esteemed status because they, like the leaders before them, could follow, take orders, execute protocol, and deliver the bomb to the exact location at the exact time without deviating ONE SINGLE OUNCE from the mission! For every single trait of “great leaders” that we are given, there are scores of leaders strewn across history who have modeled the opposite and risen to great status, albeit not always for the good, or for good causes.
I have worked with a lot of people my entire career–children, youth, and adults alike. All had the same potential to lead. Some led their peers, some led their reading group, some led their athletic team, some led their classrooms, some led their academic department, some led the school, some led the district, some led the state, some led at national levels, some simply led themselves.
I recently spoke to a group of 200 middle school students about leadership. I had only one point:
I Lead Me
I have seen men and women who could bark out orders and get followers from fear alone. I have seen charismatic men and women who could gain a following compelled by passion and cause. I have seen leaders find themselves in the front of the line simply because they stood their ground. All lead. But can they lead themselves?
Dr. Alan Arroyo once wrote that a child who was a bully was often a child that was a leader with misplaced or low motivation. They want followers, but are not able to achieve it any other way. They can’t lead themselves. Some students act like fools in class trying to always make other laugh. They want to be leaders, but they cannot lead themselves. Some people think if they are “easy” they can get people of the opposite sex to like them. They can’t lead themselves.
I define a leader as a person who has the courage to make a decision, rightly or wrongly, given the best information obtainable, and the ability to either implement the results to completion, or navigate the aftermath. Leadership is nothing more than parallel and serial decision-making, and seeing every decision to its end. PERIOD! Every leadership guru, every patriarch of the Holy Scripture, every leader of the known world both today and millennia past, arrived at leadership because of a decision that they made to stand, or go, or do, or implement, or design, or write. It was in THEIR decision that others found meaning and followed.
Are we leading ourselves? As parents, community leaders, teachers, role-models, are we leading me? God speaks in the Torah, “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” Am I choosing life and blessing, or am I choosing death and curses? Shabbot Shalom.