Updated: Jan 28
Leadership. What is leadership? It is a word that is constantly thrown around and is found decorating resumes, is front and center in social media profiles, and adorns many ‘prestigious’ institutions. Despite all of this exposure and the constant pontification about what leadership is and what it looks like, I think at times we have lost track of the meaning of leadership.
In fact, I think some of us have forgotten what leadership is really about. What we expect in leaders has slowly and consistently been obfuscated so that what we have come to expect is less than what should be expected.
The result of which is that the vast majority of the problems we face now stem from the fact that we don’t have real leaders in the positions that matter. If you chip away at the facade of this perceived leadership, you would find a very small number of individuals in the halls of power that possess the qualities of real leadership.
You may come to find that a majority of government offices and numerous corporate boardrooms are comprised of many meager and mediocre people who have convincingly imprinted upon the public their clear status as leaders. These ‘leaders’ lean on their friend’s in the institutions, specifically in the media and academia, to reinforce this persona and impress upon those yet undecided their ‘tact’ in leadership.
This rebranding of unimpressive people into inspired leaders is clearly on display in the grandiose and larger-than-life image that has been so carefully cultivated for Volodymyr Zelensky. It was also on display with Sam Bankman-Fried prior to the curtain being pulled back on him and his associates. Zelensky is lauded as the modern-day Churchill and Fried was proclaimed the Charles Schwab of cryptocurrency.
Further examples can be found in Theranos’s Elizabeth Holmes and Nikola Motors’ Trevor Milton, both of whom also wouldn’t likely have been fawned over and regarded by many as industry titans without the complicity of our institutions and the blurring and willful omission of the facts.
It should be no surprise then that the meaning of leadership has been warped to meet biases and prejudices. To meet a specific vision of the world. This is a topic for another time, however. What is important now is to delve into what exactly is leadership, striping away the misdirection and self-aggrandizement that have worn away the meaning of leadership.
So what is leadership? What makes a leader and how do you make the distinction between real and perceived leadership?
For starters, leadership is observable. It is something others see in you and they come to this conclusion naturally. If you have to convince or persuade others you are a leader, it is doubtful you actually are one. This means it is a descriptor others bestow upon you. If you look in the mirror and see a leader, that is more an indicator of a big ego than it is of leadership.
A real leader never has to reiterate that they are in charge or openly wield power to demonstrate such. If you find yourself saying 'because I say so' it is because you have a tenuous grasp on power not because you actually lead others.
Leaders make an impression on those around them, inspiring them with ability, expertise, determination, vision, and charisma. Often they may not be aware of these things, wondering why they have such a way with people, despite not initially trying to make an impression.
This comes down to the fact that leadership is natural, not contrived or composed. It isn’t able to be turned on and off. You are born with leadership abilities. No matter how many leadership trainings or conferences and no matter how many times you tell yourself you are a leader, you will not be one unless you already are one. It can’t be learned.
Part of this is because the demonstrable qualities of a leader are innate qualities. This includes the normal ones like those previously mentioned such as vision and charisma, but also determination, self-motivation, fortitude, and perseverance. Leaders are willing to stand alone because they are confident and secure enough in their convictions.
If you are exceedingly subject to the impressions of others and stand tall only when you are in the majority, you are not a leader. As such even though most politicians are perceived as leaders, they only have the trappings of leadership. Self-dealing, vanity, social climbing, and striving for influence point to a politician's mediocrity. Leaders by definition are atypical in nature, standing above the crowd. The opposite of mediocre.
Leadership in a way is also principled. This is exemplified by what we have determined to be acceptable conduct for a captain of a sinking ship. The ideal captain promptly takes charge, organizes the evacuation, keeps order and composure, and remains on the ship until everyone has disembarked, usually being the last to leave the ship.
It is not a coincidence that we view a captain who promptly abandons his vessel in such low regard and undeserving of their command. Real leadership is eternal and so doesn’t go away in a time of crisis, it actually should come out in full force in a crisis. Thus, simply exercising power does not equal leadership, it is also not abdicating the responsibilities that come with this power.
This means that if you are for example, say, a public health 'expert,' who was previously at the forefront of the national dialogue, who then has their expertise challenged by members of the public they should naturally go for the microphone to clear things up, instead of refusing to take any questions and retreating to lackeys in the media to shield them from any and all criticism.
As such, taking accountability is key to real leadership. What this means is not just being confident in your decisions, but being willing to face the hardship and scrutiny that comes along with those decisions. This is the notion behind heavy is the head that wears the crown.
Leaders are also resourceful and knowledgeable in their own right, but they realize as well that they cannot know everything. A good leader, therefore, has good advisors. A good leader then does not have to be the smartest person in the room, but they almost always possess above-average intelligence.
This is owing to the fact they need to be astute enough to sort through good advice and bad advice and be knowledgeable enough to act in the absence of advisors. A leader, as a consequence, needs a good head on their shoulders and real leaders are seldom incompetent.
Finally, leaders plan ahead. As was mentioned earlier they have a vision. A good leader knows they are working within a limited time frame and so make plans for the future, planting the seeds for fruits that they likely will not be able to enjoy. Leadership isn’t short-sighted and good leaders not only prepare their successors but give them the tools to be even better and possibly more successful than they have been. Leaders don’t pull up the ladder behind them but set a path for others to follow.
It isn’t a coincidence that the most prominent companies are built on pioneering personalities, possessing strong leadership skills. It is doubtful that if the US didn’t have strong and competent leadership in our founding fathers we would have endured for so long or be as prosperous.
All of this being said we are facing the consequences of bad leadership. Our institutions are filled with fickle and power-hungry individuals with vain ambitions that are reaffirmed by their peers in other positions of influence. These people then erode the definition of leadership and subvert what many come to expect in a leader.
One thing that can't be subverted and can't as easily be eroded is the clear differences between the quality of leaders then and the leaders now. Between real leadership and perceived leadership.
The challenge for the future is seeking out the next generation of real leadership. Being diligent and holding up those early on that truly possess real leadership skills and casting aside those merely clawing at power and influence is the first step in laying the foundation for a better and more prosperous future that is an improvement of the present.