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Leadership. Think More Swarm, Less Sparkle.

The first requirement of a good leader is character; responsibility, respect for others, honesty and trustworthiness, fairness, caring and empathy, and concern for community. These attributes are essential for good leadership.

Brilliance and charisma are exciting when we encounter them. Even more than beauty, they are the indelible elements that propel some people beyond ordinariness and into the public imagination. Brilliance and charisma are so compelling that we tend to assume that those with power and position have them, even though neither one of those are actually necessary to achieve power or position. But the lure of brilliance and charisma is so strong that we equate them with success.

I could have a blast writing about all the times that brilliance and charisma lead us astray (bad boy attraction, anyone?), but what I really want to write about in this moment is leadership, and how often we confuse good leadership with bad leadership, or no leadership at all.

It’s tempting, when we talk about leadership, to go straight for the leaders with brilliance and charisma as our examples. But what we miss in those discussions is the beating heart and soul of leadership, and the less sexy but profoundly good leaders among us who may not sparkle, but they show up every day and do the good work of leading.

Leaders aren’t just found in governments (large or small) or businesses. It takes leadership to run community organizations, non-profits, clubs and special interest groups, trade groups, choirs, community theater troupes, sports teams, and online discussion communities. It takes leadership to run schools, and organizations and clubs within those schools. It takes leadership to run families. Observe any 13-year-old with self-discipline who is propelling herself toward her future vision, and you are watching leadership-in-the-making.

The first requirement of a good leader is character; responsibility, respect for others, honesty and trustworthiness, fairness, caring and empathy, and concern for community. These attributes are essential for good leadership.

The reason character matters so much is that when someone assumes a leadership role, they are entrusted with power, while simultaneously becoming the target of other people’s agendas. A weak person in that position may put their self-interest above the group, or find it difficult to navigate the pressures of everyone else’s demands, or be unable to maintain clarity about the goals and progress of the group. Good character provides the essential internal framework for a leader to balance ego and altruism, to weigh individual interests and greater good.

After character, a good leader requires the ability to develop a vision. The vision may be as simple as helping a group of friends read and discuss one good book each month, or as complex as leading a country, but all leaders are tasked with getting a group of people from Point A to Point B. Figuring out what Point B is, and then creating a plan to get there, is the work of leadership. A leader without a point, a plan, an agenda, is just a person with power and perhaps a bigger paycheck.

Developing a vision is not the same as having a vision. Entrepreneurs are a great example of this disconnect. Entrepreneurs tend to be people with a vision, and they often end up leading a group of people when achieving the vision alone isn’t a possibility. Steve Jobs was a great visionary, but he wasn’t a particularly good leader. Elon Musk is a great visionary, but a terrible leader. Brilliance. Charisma. Sparkle.

Developing a vision involves surrounding oneself with smart people, capable people, experienced people, and enlisting their ideas and knowledge to gain clarity and create a roadmap. The way to spot a great leader is to look for great teams. In the midst of those teams will be someone who is motivating, teaching, listening, keeping the team aligned, and helping the swarm stay on the path to the vision they have defined together. Leaders use their great character as the bedrock upon which great teams can be formed, they use their teams to develop a vision, and they empower those teams to pursue that vision.

Leadership is about accomplishing something. It’s not about permanence. It can last for a week, or months, or years. But during that time, a leader makes sure something gets done, that the group is better off when they leave, that goals were set, and achieved, and everybody involved grew along the way.

America has just lived through an era where a man who claimed to be powerful and rich benefitted from the assumption that if one can become powerful and rich, he must be about something. He must be a leader. We tend to take attributes like being tall, or beautiful, or muscular, or born into wealth, or born into an influential social network, and confer upon them the mantle of leader.

We need to stop being so fascinated with the individual sparklers. To have a functioning family, club, organization, business, community, nation, or world, we must have a proper understanding of what to expect from our leaders, and from ourselves when we are leading. We must always look for substance, for the people with character, for the people who invested in their own knowledge and capabilities with rigor and humility, and built upon their experience brick by brick. Because when good leaders are in place, they harness the best of everyone around them, and everyone begins to sparkle. And when that happens, we can light up the clubhouse. We can light up the world.


photo by james wainscoat
photo by randy fath
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