10/27/10: Pondering leadership

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

WHAT MAKES a leader?

It has been interesting to watch political candidates at every level declare themselves to be leaders, implying, of course, that their opponents are not. But does calling oneself a leader make it so?

There are many qualities that leaders possess, among them courage, confidence, integrity, wisdom, competence, vision, the respect of their peers and communication skills. Leaders cannot exist without followers. Successful leaders understand what their followers want and need, a concept probably best explained by Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

By itself, the word “leader” carries neither a positive nor a negative connotation, as there are both good and bad leaders.  George Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. come to mind as examples of the former, while Adolf Hitler and Jim Jones are examples of the latter.

Some question whether leaders are born or made. There is no doubt that some leadership skills can be taught — one can learn to be a more effective communicator, for example — but I think there has to be a natural talent there. All the lessons in the world will not make me as good a golfer as Tiger Woods or as good a musician as Yo-Yo Ma. Great leaders build on the natural skills they already possess.

Do not confuse leadership with ego. I’ve yet to meet a candidate who didn’t have a healthy ego. After all, believing that you can do the job better than the other guy requires it. When a candidate calls himself a leader, that’s his ego talking. Lord Byron said, “And when we think we lead, we are most led.”    There’s an old gospel song, “May the Work I’ve Done Speak For Me,” that every candidate should listen to. A candidate’s accomplishments — in the community, in business and elsewhere — are a testament to his or her leadership.

As voters, we are often disappointed when our elected officials don’t lead. Perhaps that is because we allowed something other than a review of leadership qualities to determine for whom to cast our vote. Ultimately, the blame for electing people who are more concerned with doing things other than the business of the people falls on us, not on them.

In his book, “Where Have All the Leaders Gone?” Lee Iacocca cautioned that we “avoid jumping to conclusions or basing your vote on quick impressions.”

If we let things like party affiliation, the endorsement of someone we respect or even just our dislike of the other guy   make the decision, it costs us.

In business, poor leadership affects the performance of the company by lowering morale and productivity. The same applies to our communities. Poor leadership creates a disconnect between the goals of the voters and those of the ones making the decisions. We stop feeling like a part of the process. Many drop out, not even bothering to vote.

Next week, we get a chance to choose some of those who would represent us. As broadcasting pioneer Donald H. McGannon said, “Leadership is action, not position.” I hope we choose leaders.