Given the absence of ‘excellence’ in many of our current leaders, it’s obvious why so many are left behind. Since Americans are about to choose who will run for the office of the President, it is a fitting time to consider what qualities make someone a good leader. And what our own role is in the process.
Leaders yield great power. They also shape the leaders of tomorrow. If future leaders are taught by current leaders to look out for only their own interests, then who exactly are they leading? A better question would be: why do we keep following such leaders, and accepting such behaviour.
Back in March 2004, I attended a conference on Leadership. We were told that, fundamentally, leadership included leading by example or exhibiting behaviours for others to mimic and aspire to. During the conference, an ‘Excellence in Leadership’ award was presented.
To describe the recipient, we were regaled with an anecdote that embodied his entrepreneurial spirit and leadership qualities. Decades ago, the recipient was a student in university. After a certain class, dozens of students would dash to the library. Their goal? One of three reserve copies of the course materials.
Having faced similar situations myself, I began to wonder how one could use entrepreneurial spirit and leadership qualities to solve this dilemma. Did he make more copies and sell them to his classmates? Did he get his peers to pool their funds to make additional copies? Nope. The problem was solved by a mound of Laura Secord’s finest.
The recipient and a friend purchased some chocolate for the librarian. Thereafter, to the bewilderment of their classmates, these two “entrepreneurial-minded” students then had one-third of the copies reserved for them.
This anecdote clearly demonstrates qualities that would get an individual or small group ahead. But is it not equally clear that excellence in leadership means getting everybody ahead? If this anecdote embodies the qualities and spirit that make one an “Excellence in Leadership Award’ winner, I hope I never win one.
Oh, but it was harmless, many would say. Not when you consider that others directly suffered as a result of this ‘ingenuity’. Or that this anecdote was recounted by the Dean of one of
The problem goes even deeper than just one individual—the dean who shared the tale—who may have misspoken. The audience laughed and clapped loudly. When asked, some attendees said it showed “ingenuity” and “being in tune with one’s constituency”. Others said sometimes you have to “grease things along”. Yet another said business is “all about relationships”. What the students did was “improve the relationship between themselves and a supplier”. Besides, that’s the “how the ’system’ works”, others said. To me the whole thing sounded like bribery.
The most disturbing and common reaction was that the anecdote was a poor one because it was not memorable—it did not make much impact, positive or negative. But by not being memorable, such behaviours become acceptable. And then mimicked.
It is no wonder how the ’system’ continues to perpetuate itself. Perhaps we, the citizens of the world, could demand, foster, and support better leaders. Ones who will lead us, to quote William McDonough, to “a renewably powered world full of safe and healthy things, economically, equitably, ecologically and elegantly enjoyed”.
We can’t keep passing the buck and waiting for others to grow a world we’d all like to live in.