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In the lead

Photo by Larry Clarkin on Unsplash

“If you had any knowledge of the noble things of life, you would refrain from coveting others’ possessions” -Leonidas’ response to the Persian King Xerxes.

In 2018, there were over 1200 books published with the word “Leadership” in the title. No one needs convincing of the importance of a good leader and the prodigious results which having one accomplishes.

However, in today’s headlines, it appears its concept is being conflated with a host of attributes which refute the true meaning and purpose of this word.

In all fairness, I hesitate to comment on such a powerfully significant topic when the extent of my leadership experience has so far peaked at leading a high school band. But this subject is an issue which touches each one of us. Whether it is at home, work, or in the world at large, leadership influences many outcomes every day of our lives.

In order to define the values of leadership, one ought to first examine the various levels of significance its role plays compared to each circumstance. Some leaders who stand in esteemed regard are nothing more than high forms of entertainment; while others, with one decision, can decide the fate of millions of souls. This leaves little debate that the latter holds a greater need to faithfully execute and exude the qualities of true leadership.

What is the ultimate goal of a leader? This is not a one-word answer and demands a clear understanding by the one looking to fill those shoes. I do not believe that winning alone should always be the final objective for any leadership role. As important and substantiating as it may be for some, it can be a major distraction for others.

There have been many whose ability to lead has been prodigiously displayed in different arenas. Some of those battlefields have been in athletics while others on the battlegrounds of war. Each producing and setting precedent for defining future attributes of leadership.

Undeniably, there have been world-class athletes who’ve demonstrated leadership skills which surmounted unbelievable odds and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Those moments have and continue to inspire potential leaders. Success is most often identified with winning in this realm but what really does victory mean and to what end does it matter?

I do not wish to downplay the efforts, talent, or countless hours of hard work which athletes must produce to reach this level of leadership. Ultimately, however, what does it produce? Someone who can throw, kick, shoot, or bounce a ball with utter precision and stifling the opponent?

What defines leadership at this level is doing something beyond their athletic prowess. It is taking those same talents which inspired teammates to perform at their highest levels, and putting them to use in their own communities; motivating those who once cheered for them, to reach their full potential in the game we call life.

Winning, at the level of sport, is the ultimate goal. But outside the gridiron, ballfield or stadium, winning can distract leaders from their purpose. Competition, by its own nature, requires knowing your opponent, maneuvering strategically and attacking those weaknesses while stretching the boundaries set by the rules of the game.

If this strategy is deployed by a community leader, competition amongst the constituents, perpetuates favoritism, promotes discrimination, and frequently turns its back on integrity. If the one in charge only helps those who are likeminded, it limits equal opportunity for the entire community. It also establishes what I frequently describe as “Benevolent Ignorance” which is the idea that your way of thinking is the rule of law and any thought or consideration of an opposing view is worthless and a waste of time.

Even on the battlefields of war, some of the most heroic efforts upheld honor more than the objective to win. The opening quote was attributed to Leonidas, the leader of the legendary 300 Spartans who fought bravely against the Xerxes and his 70,000 soldiers. According to the Greek philosopher Plutarch, Xerxes offered Leonidas to be the “sole ruler of Greece” in return for his surrender at Thermopylae.

Being a Leader meant more to this fierce warrior than simply winning. It was about honor and the individual decency of every Greek citizen. Not only did Leonidas stand up for the dignity of the people of Greece, he also told Xerxes, “but for me to die for Greece is better than to be the sole ruler over the people of my race.”

He knew full well the likelihood of victory was slim. With all odds against him, he inspired and led his army to repel the onslaught for days. It was only by the deception of a fellow Greek – whose honor Leonidas also pledged to protect – which turned the tide and ultimately terminated one of the most lopsided standoffs in the history of wars.

The pendulum of Leadership in today’s world appears to be leaning toward winning, especially in the political arenas of the world. No doubt candidates must win the election before having an opportunity to promote their agenda, but the emphasis on winning fuels all kinds of dubious actions which abandon important qualities such as integrity, honor, and fairness and after all, aren’t these the authentic values we seek in a leader?

Besides the afore mentioned traits, we may have our own thoughts on what makes a great leader. But are these tainted by our own voracious need to win? This is the question I constantly ask myself. Are any of the characteristics I promote giving me an unfair advantage? Am I a victim of my own blind ambitions?

True leaders display humility and don’t describe themselves as “flawless” nor their actions as “perfect.” There is always room for improvement and at times, may feel disappointment if they were not able to do more. Winning is only part of the strategy if it first benefits those who are being led.

An author and friend, Kees Van Der Ent, frequently ruminates on the subject of leadership, and once wrote, “Real Leaders make common people feel special.” What I love about this quote is that it’s not immensely poetic, but it strikes at the core of what we aspire from any person in authority. Leadership is making the ones being led to feel better about themselves.

The next time you think about the kinds of behaviors you want to see in those whose care you will be found, remember to ask yourself if you strive to reach those same qualities. Endeavoring to reach those same goals may give you a glimpse of what it’s like to be a true leader.

My thanks to Larry Clarkin on Unsplash for the fitting picture and I look forward to your comments.

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