What pushes men and women toward greatness? Is history a chronicle of great leaders who shaped the world or did events provide the opportunities for leaders who, though capable and motivated, were merely in the right place at the right time?
Can leadership be learned or must one be born with it in their veins? Plato felt that leaders must be born with the ability to lead and everyone else must assume a subservient role and follow. Thomas Carlyle, a writer from the 19th century, on the other hand, believed that great leaders are made by a combination of personal qualities and learned skills. Thus, in Carlyle’s view, most everybody can lead at some level and thereby impact their environment.
Why do people want to be great leaders anyway? Isn’t it easier just to follow the crowd, blend in and live a peaceful, nondescript existence? Perhaps, but people, being what they are, have a need for power, recognition and accomplishment, so many of us strive for a spot in the limelight.
What are the motivators?
Leadership is a very complex subject not easily categorized into neat little groups. For some the call, no doubt, is the power and prestige that comes with having an important job and being in the public view. Money is also a significant motivator for many leaders, but of minimal importance for others.
For those with ambition unrelated to money, the cause or issue to which they are devoted is the reason for taking on the burdens of leadership. To this group, money, power and high visibility are secondary to furthering the venture they have so passionately committed themselves.
Much like deer hunters who leave their warm, dry beds in the mornings to venture out into the harsh elements in pursuit of their sport, leaders leave the comfortable confines of their daily grinds to subject themselves to the rough and tumble of making things different. They win, they loose, but always they spring back and try again and again.
America has concluded a presidential election campaign. Since the American presidency is the top leadership position in the world, it’s fair to question the motives of those who seek the office. Why did John Kerry and George W. Bush seek the presidency? Both are wealthy beyond the comprehension of most Mississippians, so money was not likely the motivating factor. No doubt, being President of the United States is the most prestigious job in the world, and that probably explains why these two wealthy aristocrats subjected themselves to the rigors of campaigning to get the job.
Born to lead?
Would either of these guys fit Plato’s definition of being born to lead? Are they lovers of wisdom, possess good memories, articulate, not given to boasting and uncivil behavior? Are they, above all else, seekers of truth? At the risk of being judgmental, I don’t see either guy qualifying to be a Platonian “philosopher king.”
Rather, I think both sought votes above all else and bent to varying political persuasions in pursuit of the prize. The sad truth is that Americans are so addicted to politicians promising us things that pandering to various special interest groups is required for election.
Departing from presidential politics, what do the various theories of leadership mean for everyday people in their everyday lives? Assuming that most of us are not destined for the national spotlight, does how we conduct our lives matter?
Can we influence our situation through our actions? I believe that Carlyle is right and what we do matters very much. In fact, I think that the choices of ordinary citizens are more important in shaping our society than the monumental decisions made by those in top leadership positions.
Sometimes I think we wrongly assume that leadership occurs only in the highly visible positions of corporate CEOs and elected officials. Actually, all of us are leaders in some endeavors and followers in others. We lead not only in business undertakings, but also in family matters, civic clubs and middle-level management.
Our willingness to assume a leadership role knits the very fabric of our society. Of equal importance is our willingness to follow others in those situations where we are not the leaders. Leading and following work together to accomplish all that we do.
So, what does all this mean? I suggest that we miss opportunities in everyday life to seize the moment and make things better because we’re timid or bashful and uncertain of what our role should be in a particular situation.
Davy Crockett’s motto was “be sure you’re right and then go ahead.” It’s not necessary, or desirable, to sit on the sidelines and wait for a Platonian “philosopher king” to arise and save the day. Better that each of us merely decides what is right and does what needs to be done.
In all likelihood, we won’t be heralded with trumpets, but we will know we did the right thing and that’s all that really matters anyway.
Thought for the Moment — If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. — Mark 8:34
Joe D. Jones, CPA, is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.