On the day President Biden took office in the US, I found myself coincidently having a really interesting conversation about leadership with one of Trainers' Library's members.
One of his delegates had pointed out that in our module The Leadership Identikit, a good proportion of the examples of symbolic, powerful, charismatic and heroic leaders we’ve included were either imprisoned for many years (Nelson Mandela) or murdered (Julius Caesar and Martin Luther King).
On reflection, amongst the other examples are people who have not had an easy life either: Rosa Parks and Greta Thunberg spring immediately to mind.
Although our examples are famous, partly because they have suffered more than most for their beliefs and passion, I do think this observation highlights some interesting points about leadership.
One is that leadership involves taking risks. Leaders push boundaries, challenge accepted norms, push back against barriers and pursue a new vision.
The second is that great leaders often come to the fore in times of great adversity.
Leadership of course does not necessarily mean good leadership: Hitler after all, pushed boundaries, had a vision and came to the fore in times of adversity.
Leadership is effectively, simply the ability to influence. So, how can we identify good leaders?
It’s important to recognise that every assessment we make of someone’s leadership is subjective; one man’s visionary is another man’s pariah, (if you’ll excuse the sexism). And it can be particularly difficult to assess contemporary leadership. After all, if leaders are busy upsetting the status quo, taking us in directions we may not want to go, and disrupting the comfort zones we feel secure in, it’s easy to see them as militants or troublemakers. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Emily Pankhurst; they were all viewed as such by many in society in their time.
Often great acts of leadership only become really apparent in later times when the world has shifted towards their vision. And as the toppling of statues in 2020 highlighted, our assessment of leadership is a fluid thing.
So, as President Biden takes office in the US, how can we really make a fair assessment of his predecessor’s leadership? And more importantly, how can we assess whether our own leadership is as good as it can be?
I’ve been reflecting on this, and it seems to me that those we mostly recognise today as great leaders are those who sought to take people into the future more equal and more united.
And that perhaps bad leaders are those who sought to divide people against each other and use that division to feed their own power.
Which led me to an even simpler distinction. Perhaps it’s as simple as this:
A good leader’s focus is outwards; on what they can do to help and enable as many others as possible.
A bad leader’s focus is inwards; on what they can do to promote their own needs and interests, and the needs of their immediate tribe, to the detriment of others.
And, if this is true, on these measures perhaps we can, after all, make a fair assessment of Donald Trump’s presidency, and ultimately, our own.
I mentioned earlier that leaders (good and bad) often come to the fore in periods of great adversity. Today is no exception and I’m sure we can all identify really inspiring acts of good leadership we’ve witnessed during the pandemic. Not just from people in accepted positions of power but from health professionals, key workers, people in our organisations and within our families.
So, let’s celebrate these outward looking leaders by naming them. Whose great leadership has inspired you in these difficult times? Please add your examples in the comments below - I'd love to see them.