A general is just as good or just as bad as the troops under his command make him.
General Douglas MacArthur
We all know there are so many examples of those considered to be great leaders – from Elizabeth 1, to Jack Welch, from Alex Ferguson to Mhatma Gandhi (now there’s a leap…), from Bill Clinton (who else’s jury is out?) to Margaret Thatcher (ditto?). Anyway, we get the drift. There’s usually a type and it usually involves being drenched in charisma, featuring the tenacity of a terrier and the skin of a rhino. As with everything though, there are always disagreements to the true value, or benefit, of certain key qualities – who wants to argue whether Muammar Gaddafi is a technically “effective” leader, given standard criteria? Adolf Hitler certainly was and we have reams of stories of (alleged) scumbags being lauded for leading big successful, money-spinning organisations prior to their spectacular downfalls – Fred Goodwin anyone? Bernie Madoff? What often seems to be missing quite dramatically from many ‘great’ leaders is a sense of responsibility to others. Not necessarily a civic duty (though that would be really nice) but at the very least an acknowledgement that Other People Exist and have every right not be be done over.
I was speaking with an experienced clinical psychotherapist last week, who made the interesting point that in her recent business coaching experience, she believes Gen Y is becoming increasingly introspective and less community focused; they just have a different approach to relationship building. Of course, it seems absolutely natural that this would be the case, given the dramatic twitterisation of human social interaction over the last couple of years. Increasingly anonymous, definitively brief, often solipsistic, generally requiring no actual response – and frequently entirely pointless. But it’s the now and undoubtedly the future. So what does this mean for our assessments of and requirements for leadership in the future?
If JFK swept into power largely on the strength of performance superiority in the first televised presidential debate (he ultimately had whiter teeth and sweated much less than Nixon) and Nick Clegg gained a couple of million brownie points likewise in 2010 for a similar trial (though there it was not so much about the sweating and more about Gordon Brown’s rubbish answers) and yet within 18 months, one had been assassinated with bullets and the other with compromises, do we have to question our own judgement about what we’re looking for, rating highly and ultimately berating? Of course I’m being flippant, but the question of what we want and expect is crucial, what we condone and celebrate as a society and how we judge, assess, emulate and reward ‘talent’ and those who should be leading, directing and influencing the rest of us. True leadership is actually about the accomplishment of tasks, initiatives, projects etc THROUGH social interaction, which provides the necessary support and unity to make something happen effectively. Not bossing people about, bullying them and taking all the credit – and the spoils. A leader isn’t a leader if no one elects to follow them, no matter how astonishing they think they are, or how impressive their CV has been at some point.
Charisma is seductive, even when we suspect it masks less attractive features and in an increasingly visual and sound-bitten society, it matters more all the time. We want our leaders to look and sound better than we think we could. But we also want them to behave impeccably, be right all the time, take less money than they could and solve global poverty. Or at least to give it a go and be humble when it doesn’t quite come off. But most of all, I think we just want them to be honest. We can forgive quite a lot else, but not a lack of honesty. That was the key issue with the recent UK expenses scandal – we expected so much more from our politicians and leaders and we felt cheated and let down at their total lack of honesty within a trusting system; whilst we may not have been able to amend the parliamentary system, we could vote the cheaters out at the election. We could take a stand and do something, at least.
So when it comes to leadership, if nothing else, we can set standards for ourselves, for our businesses, our children and our brands. We can choose to work with people we respect and support their aims to grow ethical, sustainable, fair-minded businesses. We can find ways to promote and celebrate those we know are doing fabulous things in some sphere of life, whatever the scale; size isn’t always everything. We can inspire young people to believe in hard work, some vague form of karma (insofar as you should behave well if you expect nice things to happen in the long run) and respect for others. We should separate figureheads from leaders and look at people who are leading positively from the middle, not just those who are sitting at the top. And at the very least, we really should make a huge effort to be the leader of our own lives and certainly to feel as though we are.
We can at least have a go at doing that really well – and be truly Independent Women leading by example….
Strategic Director, Independent Women