We understand that leadership is more important today than ever. Our world is more complex, more dangerous, and more opportunity-filled than at any time in history. Yet, what it means to lead and be a leader is still often misunderstood.
Interestingly, there is an ancient Chinese saying that can help cut through to much of what is important about leading, leaders, and leadership. Paraphrased, the saying is:
The poor leader the people despise.
The good leader the people admire.
About the great leader, the people say, “We did it ourselves.”
This simple statement holds significant truth. The truth lies in the leader’s motivation and how that motivation is expressed in the way the leader leads.
Consider that poor leaders are concerned with their own interests first and act in ways that align to what best serves these interests. The interests of those who depend on these leaders and their actions are, at best, a secondary priority. These interests receive attention primarily when they align with the poor leader’s interests. Over time, this truth is revealed and its consequences are visited on those who depend on the leader to protect their interests and well-being. These leaders will eventually be unmasked as self-serving and uninterested in what is best for those they are charged to lead. Distrust and derision naturally follow.
Good leaders understand that the interests of those who depend on their leadership must be given highest priority. These leaders act in ways that protect and benefit followers. Consequently, trust grows. Leadership motivation is clear and supported. In times of crisis, these leaders step forward to act in ways that make a positive difference, even when such actions are difficult and require courage. In exchange, the followers extend admiration and love to the leader.
Great leaders also give highest priority to the interests of those who depend on their leadership. However, these leaders understand and accept that the highest form of leadership is not acting on behalf of followers; these leaders are committed to building the capacity of and providing opportunities for followers to do vital work, accomplish important goals, and meet difficult challenges for themselves. The great leader is willing to not be the center of attention and primary object of admiration in exchange for the long-term health, safety, and success of the community. This leader looks beyond their own best interests to support the success of others. While public acclaim may not be as frequent or visible, this leader understands that at the core of the highest form of leadership is helping others become leaders.
We have too few great leaders in public service today to serve as models. These great leaders too often are not held up and heralded. Our challenge is to recognize the contributions of these leaders, point to them for emulation, and offer our gratitude.
We also need to consider our personal leadership and examine what type of leader we are. Do we aspire to be loved and admired? Not a bad goal, but it risks others becoming overdependent on us and robbing them of the opportunity to develop their own skills. When we choose to be a great leader, we open the possibility of spreading our influence past our immediate context and making a difference well beyond our imagination.