By: Mike Merrigan
In light of the upcoming elections and continued corporate failures (have you looked at a VW lately?), I thought leadership would be a good topic to discuss with you before your morning run or workout.
So what exactly is leadership? What are the traits and qualities of a good leader? Are leaders born or made? Chances are good that none of you answered these questions the same. If you used Google to help, you were given a smorgasbord of choices including such things as seven habits, eight secrets, 21 indispensables, 33 qualities, etc.
Amazon also offers plenty of books to choose from, in their nearly unending a la carte menu from chefs like Blanchard, Covey, Maxwell, Jobs, Welch and Coach K. Even Mercy executive Donn Sorensen has published his five keys in his recent “Big-Hearted Leadership,” which I recently read.
No other topic has been discussed, studied, researched and written about by scholars and would-be scholars (no offense intended, Donn). Throughout the decades, most scholars have not agreed on a single definition or leadership theory; however, most would probably define leadership as an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes and outcomes that reflect their shared purposes.
That doesn’t sound like a tasty recipe you can get your mouth around, or even both hands. Especially when today’s business leaders operate in a world where little is certain, the pace is relentless and everything is more complex. It takes time to develop relationships (Twitter followers and Facebook friends don’t count) and even more time to reflect on the direction you want to go or the changes you want to make, especially if you want them to last longer than a post on Snapchat. Leadership books offer great sound bites, but do any of them contain the recipe that you would want to pass down through the generations like a great family recipe?
Are leaders born or made? I believe it is both and that we all have the necessary ingredients to lead — in our careers, communities, families and personal life.
Sometimes we just need to simplify things and focus on a couple of things that reinforce each other, not five, seven, eight, 21 or 33 separate ones. To me, a simple recipe for leadership is doing the right thing, for the right reason, the right way and being morally good. This is especially true today when many major business decisions have a moral aspect to them, because decisions can result in benefits to some and harms to others, and rights recognized for some and denied for others. This definition sounds simple, but it’s very difficult to do, especially without the right ingredients (which were obviously missing at VW for many years).
One key ingredient that makes this recipe work is so old fashioned that it comes from Aristotle and is in the form of practical wisdom. For Aristotle, the purpose of life was human flourishing; and, with practical wisdom we flourish and without it we languish. So where can you buy this ingredient?
You already have it; you just need to develop it and learn how to use it. Aristotle focused on virtues as his ingredients, including such old-fashioned character traits as kindness and altruism. He viewed everything in existence as moving from potentiality to actuality; and, that a person’s full actuality is already within them, it just needs development, nurturing and perfecting through good habits. (If this sounds a little familiar to you, we would refer to it as self-actualization today.)
“We are what we repeatedly do . . . excellence is not an act, but a habit.” He even gave us his five focal virtues (or habits — sorry Covey) that we should work on as a starting point: compassion, discernment, trustworthiness, integrity and conscientiousness. As these virtues become habit, we become more virtuous and stronger in character. Lastly, Aristotle believed that as we become people of virtue who engage in virtuous acts by habit, we receive more virtues, which ultimately produce the key virtue, practical wisdom.
One last key ingredient is all you need to make this recipe complete. It’s like that little teaspoon of baking powder, but it is the one that makes all of this work. For Aristotle, that last ingredient is courage — it is the first human quality that guarantees all the others. With it, we almost become like Superman — we know what the right thing is, we are emotionally attached to it and we do it.
This article appeared in the June 25th, 2016 edition of the News-Leader and can be accessed online here.