The words flowing from her mouth were all the more sagacious for the effortlessness with which she spoke them. Despite the stressful situation, she was at ease, shoulders square, confident. Her charges were buoyed by her implacability and awed by the immediacy with which she tackled this latest setback. While they viewed it as a devastating blow, and it objectively was, she referred to it as an opportunity. To the collective and to each individual, she was sure to impart her faith in them, to give them specific direction. They could only recover if each member was operating at the highest level, herself included. She was their leader, but she was one of them too.
Leadership is a selfless endeavor, about optimizing the group being lead and not about aggrandizing the leader. Not everyone shares this view. Leaders the world and history over create a cult of personality that co-opts the communal. Military and political commanders, high on their own fumes, mistake their mandate for one of self-interest instead of the protection and evolution of their societies.
A great leader can appear almost passive despite the unseen assertiveness that undergirds her actions. Effective leadership follows Zen principles: the harder one tries to cajole a group into following her, the more she seems like a charlatan. It is through grace, patience, and example that the true leader compels her charges to their ultimate destination. It is akin to being a parent: yelling at a child is not likely to produce the desired results. Explaining the way in a calm voice, one filled with compassion and understanding, will work untold wonders. Maybe not the first or tenth time, but leadership, as with parenthood, is a long-term process.
A leader’s elevated perch does not a deity make. Possessing experience, talent, and a certain je ne sais quoi is not enough to make one omniscient or omnipotent. To know when to trust one’s instincts and when to consult with subordinates or outside experts is one of those important judgment calls that an effective leader is able to make.
But a leader cannot always be deferential. Sometimes her team needs her to grab the standard and charge forward into proverbial battle. If she has done the proper background work, her crew will follow her into whatever horrors await. If she has clawed her way to the top through ruthlessness and duplicity, she will run into the hail of bullets solo. Worse yet, she may be struck down by friendly fire.
Most leaders were born to lead, were probably organizing the other tots in the playpen. An admirable trait, but actually detrimental to developing into the kind of selfless leader that this world needs. If one gets the taste of the power inherent in leadership, it is that much more difficult to round off the sharp edges, to abdicate the spoils in favor of altruistic service.
We already have plenty of self-referential, pocket-stuffing, future-detonating leaders. Perhaps we can try a different type, the kind that make a difference and not headlines. Just in this Valley, there are an encouraging amount of selfless leaders, the kind who would happily give you the jacket off their back and ask you not to mention it to anyone. The kind that you fawn over, which embarrasses them. A leader that is the type of person that we all aspire to be. Let’s follow them.