by Sandy Costa
I am by nature an optimist. I see that almost all problems are manageable—few are, in truth, more than a bump in the road. Provided we get ourselves together and focus on the characteristics of the problem not on self-aggrandizement or “style” getting credit for solving the problem. It’s not about adding flashy, new line-items to one’s résumé.
Right now, however, I’m more than a little concerned that we are seeing a dearth of leadership in many areas of society. Consider the pedigree of several individuals running in several high visibility races. What value system tells them that they would be fine leaders? For present leaders and potential leaders, there is no escaping the excessively interested public eye. Of course, it is a fond eye, for the most part, but it is always a judging eye—always! And it turns especially dark and draconian when its perceived leaders disappoint; that aggregate disappointment seems more loose in the land these days than, even, ten years ago.
Watching every word, every act, and every aspect of a leader’s conduct is a constant in companies, too. When things are going well, leadership by example is still the most tangible proof of an individual’s beliefs and values! Aristotle writes that “Virtue is learned by imitation.” So true, but what a responsibility for the company’s leaders, because lessons are learned by watching conduct both becoming and unbecoming!
And, unfortunately, some leaders do not discern that lessons the watchers learn from conduct that does not align with our highest ideals and aspirations is a teaching, as well. Often a more powerful, lasting lesson. One such remarkable lesson is that our elected officials can rationalize passing legislation that does not apply to them! When people begin to acquit themselves in ways that reflect the lowest common denominator of communal behavior standards, they fail as leaders.
In my book Humanity at Work: Encouraging Spirit, Achievement and Truth to Flourish in the Workplace (Chapel Hill Press, 2008), I explain why we all need effective leadership. “… [T]he populace must . . . have leaders of divinely inspired character. Two individuals so possessed and so providentially placed at critical historical junctures were Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill.”
“These two are among the greatest leaders of the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively. Arguably, no two mortals have been the subjects of more biographical inquiries. Read their lives and you will come to understand the moral and ethical fabric that binds together a person of strong convictions. In their actions and behavior we see how an entire nation can be held together—to suffer and to persevere together, then to triumph–through the principled leadership, the unwavering character of a single soul.”
Neither Lincoln nor Churchill based their leadership behavior on the most recent popular precedent of how to rev up a crowd, entertain by means of extreme antics, or embody “shock and awe” in the leader’s own comportment. Rather, these leaders’ actions were consistent with historically honored norms and “best practices.”
We need to learn leadership deeply, integrating saying and doing the right things into our selves so that they become intuitive, habitual. Leadership is not about techniques that we take away from a week-long leadership program. It’s also not a “style”. You can’t simply memorize leadership “tips.” It’s much more personal than that. We need, instead, to internalize our leadership skills to the point that they become instinctive. Leadership is a lifelong practice, akin to the way some people make spiritual practices lifelong habits of conduct.
None of these habits is permanent without a foundation. The foundation is a lifelong commitment, the application of time and days. A key deliverable of doing this is predictability. Because, in addition to being genuine in expressing a oneness with our employees, and in espousing group strength and perseverance in order to triumph, the true leader is predictable-all who need him or her as a good example for their own conduct need to feel that they can count on the leader. Employees, clients, and customers will never trust someone who lacks predictability.
With unpredictable people our psyche is constantly off balance. It lacks the peace of mind and confidence back behind the day-to-day mendacities that are needed by everyone in the company in order to do good work, to work with a clear focus on problem-solving. In a difficult situation nothing is worse than waiting for the leader to show the way forward while everyone is sitting around saying to themselves “What is Mr. Dithers going to saythis time?” The leader’s news needs to be predictable in every office in the company. Impulsiveness, like playing to the lowest common denominator, and like affecting a leadership “style,” has no place in great leadership.
We are dreadfully in need of some adult supervision. It’s way past time to bring out the grownups.