Leadership is an odd thing. It is better “caught than taught.” Still, authors like Orrin Woodward and myself still labor to teach it the best we can. Often, in the course of doing so, we call upon illustrations of leaders both historical and contemporary who have demonstrated worthy leadership characteristics. There is a problem with this approach, however, one that goes beyond the obvious disclaimer that all humans are flawed and no one can truly serve as a perfect example of leadership. The bigger problem with this approach is that, often, high-profile and/or famous leaders also exhibit some really poor qualities.
For instance: Abraham Lincoln may be known for strong war-time leadership, preserving the union, and freeing the slaves, but he also ushered in America’s first dose of federal Income Tax, ran nearly his entire Presidency above the law and in violation of the Constitution, launched a fiat money system, and saddled the young country with a debt 100 times its previous peak.
Or take Winston Churchill: he is generally known for standing in the gap in “Britain’s finest hour” and staunchly defying Hitler, mobilizing the English language and sending it into battle, but there is also strong evidence that he baited the Germans into sinking passenger ships and thereby pulling the United States into the war.
Finally, consider George Washington: he is credited with throwing off the shackles of English tyranny and shepherding the young Unites States onto proper footing in its years of infancy; but he also led an army of the government against its very own citizens to put down a tax revolt.
Do these obvious concerns detract from the strong leadership characteristics for which these leaders have come to be known? Maybe. They do, however, illuminate the challenge with attempting to teach a changeless principle using the illustration of high-profile human examples.
Where else should one look, then, for effective examples of honorable and effective leadership in motion?
The answer to this question gets to the root of our book, Launching a Leadership Revolution, in which we claim that effective leadership can be found at all levels of human endeavor, not simply at the top. In fact, it is likely that the most impressive, contributory, productive, purpose-driven examples of true leadership are to be found in relative obscurity.
Take for instance the so-called “do nothing” presidents of the United States; the Franklin Pierces, the Grover Clevelands, the Gerald Fords. These men didn’t earn the high mantle of fame, the high prominence of academic admiration, nor the widespread remembrance of a thankful people, rather, they receive an obligatory earmark mention, at best, in lists of presidents. But is it not true that these men, and the many more like them, managed to continue the ship of state chugging along in its course, successfully avoiding expensive and fatal conflict with other nations, allowing its citizens a respite of high-profile heroics and providing instead a period of peace and prosperity, where families were free to live in freedom and go about their business uninhibited by the intrusion of a nationalized government agenda?
So much for presidents, whom, no matter how unrenowned, could still be argued to be high-profile. But further down into the depths of obscurity are the everyday “common people,” those working and living “in the trenches.” What of these? Represented in this group are fathers leading a family, mothers nurturing children, workers dependably running the engines of industry, small business owners expanding the economy, and servicemen and women standing at the ready? I would suggest that it is here, far away from the limelight, where true leadership can best be observed.
For heroes of leadership, many of us need look no further than our own parents or grandparents. Some of us have seen it brilliantly embodied at work or at church, or in some community involvement. True leadership can be found anywhere excellence resides. And it doesn’t take a “national hero” to fit the mantle. It takes an individual of character charged with a deep desire to fulfill his or her potential by “making things better.” Anywhere someone is doing that, they are providing a case study in leadership.
Do you long for heroes? Do you appreciate good examples ? Then look around. They can be found everywhere in the quiet passage of daily life, in the schools, the shops, the banks, the meeting rooms, the churches, and even sometimes in government offices (believe it or not).
But a better place to look is within. Become your own best example. No one may ever know all you did to make things better and contribute your gifts to positive change, but notoriety is no measure of contribution, anyway. A life lived on purpose with an admirable purpose is the real measure, in which you fulfill your God-given calling with all your might.
And who knows. Maybe someone will notice, send it to this blog, and we’ll make you famous!
You never know.