While we know a lot about what leadership isn’t, there’s not much consensus about what good leadership is all about. I believe character makes the difference between principled, positive leadership, and misguided influence.
In a relatively short time, Americans will be going to the polls to elect a new president. Many regard the President of the United States as not only the country’s chief executive but also the de facto leader of the free world. So what does it take to be a leader? What are the essential ingredients of sound leadership? History has taught us some sobering lessons about inadequate leadership or leadership gone awry, and we’re likely to be learning some new lessons very soon.
Psychologists and various other social scientists have been studying leadership and the personal attributes of effective leaders for a long time. But even the concept of leadership is not that easy to define, and as you might suspect, styles of leadership vary considerably. Moreover, different cultures look at leadership and what people expect of their leaders in very different ways. It’s much easier to say what leadership isn’t than it is to define exactly what it is. So perhaps it’s worth a look at some of the more common misconceptions about leadership.
Contrary to popular belief, leadership is not an innate trait. While it’s not uncommon to hear someone referred to as a “born leader,” no one is endowed with good leadership simply by nature. A person might indeed have some personality traits and predispositions — such as organizational skills, sociability, the power to motivate and influence, etc. — that can increase their chances for effective leadership, but leadership itself appears to involve much more than just possessing certain desirable characteristics. Leadership has to be developed. It helps to have some of the raw talents that contribute to it, but even those talents have to be nurtured and refined if one is going be an effective leader.
Leadership is not synonymous with power. You can acquire power over people in all sorts of ways, including through coercion and manipulation. And while many might regard the noteworthy leaders among us as powerful people indeed, just having power and sway over others doesn’t make you a strong or good leader. Leadership is more than power. It’s the power to influence and motivate. It’s also the skill to organize and unite. Leaders inspire. And they mobilize others into action.
Leadership is not inherently positive. Human history is full of examples of leaders who led their country’s families, businesses, and even their social and political institutions squarely into the proverbial ditch. History is also full of examples where astute leaders secured immense personal gain at the expense of the very people they purported to lead. A good leader can be key to the success of an enterprise just as a bad leader can be the instrument of true disaster. Positive leadership isn’t just about leadership skill; it’s also about character.
Leaders can’t do it alone. While we often turn to our leaders for direction and guidance, the most skilled and influential of leaders depend on both the willing consent and cooperation of those they lead. Even those leaders who employ the most insidious forms of coercion, oppression, and manipulation to amass their power owe much of their success to the tacit (albeit sometimes unwitting) support of those they lead. Demagogues know how to to appeal to the fears, insecurities, prejudices, and yearnings of those they lead. But in a very real sense, they are therefore dependent upon those folks and their personal characteristics to hold onto their power and influence. Leadership is, at heart, a group enterprise.
While we know a lot about what leadership isn’t, there’s not much consensus about what good leadership is all about. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why we can have such a hard time deciding who to support in political contests. For me, I’ve always voted for character, because it’s my personal belief that character makes the difference between principled, positive leadership, and misguided influence. And there have been plenty of times in my adult life where I unfortunately felt I had to choose the lesser of two evils when voting for a particular candidate.
Sadly, the current presidential race for me sets a new and most unnerving precedent. I know how badly our country needs leadership. But I’m dismayed over our choices about who will likely provide it. Someone will soon be setting our country’s tone and direction for the next four years, and in the view of many, that person will also be in a position to lead the free world. Whoever we select, we’re likely to learn some very important lessons about leadership and the qualities we must demand of those who would lead us. I just hope those lesson aren’t unnecessarily tough ones. More importantly than that, I pray we truly learn from them.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on October 25, 2016.
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