The nature of good leadership

by The Editor

ARTICLE: What is the nature of good leadership? That is a question that has elicited a thousand answers. In the article below, I look at a few of the requisite traits. In particular, the central importance of a vision and its relationship to sacrifice: that a good leader understands, in order to progress from one state of affairs to another, they must be willing to sake something on that transition and that you can tell a great deal about a leader by the extent to which they are willing to do this.

The nature of good leadership

By: Gareth van Onselen

27 March 2012

To lead is overwhelmingly a dynamic idea. It implies movement – the ability effectively to oversee a progression from one state of affairs to another, always with advancement and betterment in mind. And yet, contrariwise, there are those who would argue its requirements primarily static. That it implies continuity, an ability to sustain the status quo. What does this disparity mean for the idea?

These two things are not mutually exclusive. All leaders will face moments when they are obliged to defend the status quo in the face of some regressive threat; but rarely is that situation permanent. More likely their primary challenge will be to ensure progress. In that situation it is the status quo that becomes a regressive threat, and to fight for its preservation is to ignore development and improvement.

Those leaders who recognise this fact are forward-looking and visionary. Those that do not, are retrogressive and uninspired. Both use the status quo as a yardstick, but the former does so to justify a better future, the latter to justify the here and now.

To fend off the future, one must blind the world to it. And so, very often, those leaders who would continuously defend that which is before their eyes turn to control and hegemony to achieve that end. That requires the imposition of set ideas, of uniformity and restraint because, for them, tomorrow is a threat – its ill-defined nature no guarantee of continued power and prestige.

In contrast, a leader concerned with improving the human condition will embrace competition and all that it entails. For such a leader, the future is an opportunity: a chance to use their influence to better shape tomorrow (as opposed to shaping other people).

It becomes apparent, then, that much like respect, those leaders concerned with a brighter future are largely oblivious to the power they wield. Those concerned with the present, however, are acutely aware of their authority. The visionary are inspirational and admired because they deal in influence. The uninspired are domineering, feared or disliked, because they deal in control.

Investing faith in an unknown future is a risk, however carefully-mapped one’s strategy. And one can always tell one type of leader from another by their willingness to sacrifice their own standing in favour of what is right and good. Not so the other type. For them, their rise to power is the future – an objective in and of itself. Anything outside of that is dangerous, to be avoided, contained or subdued. This is a false kind of leadership, as its justification is inward-looking and its intention self-serving.

It is a helpful exercise to apply this simple test to any leader and ask the question: to what degree are they concerned with a better future and what chances are they willing to take to get there? You can be sure, if the chances are small and the future undefined, their business is not in your best interest.

And here is it worth looking at the words they use to define their purpose – the language of leadership. Does it evoke the past and avoid the future? Does it promote compromise and demote principle? Does it seek to appease or aspire to inspire? Does it encourage the safety of what we know and instill a fear in what we do not? Is it self-referential rather than selfless? Does it recommend control and defame competition?

A vision can tell you everything about a person – their attitudes and aptitude. But the lack of a vision can tell you only one thing definitively: the person concerned is not a leader. Ironically, the last to admit that will be those ostensible leaders themselves. But only until their power is entrenched absolutely, for then the farce serves no further purpose, because the future has been permanently established.

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