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Who Wants to be a Leader?



While I was working on updating my Foundations of Leadership workshop material I found myself thinking that it would be good to include some current examples of leadership in the real world. In the book, "Foundations of Leadership," I've included case studies examining the leadership style of four high-profile historical leaders: Steve Jobs, Colin Powell, Winston Churchill and Angela Merkel. To illustrate what I talk about in the workshops, I thought I would tell the stories of some high-profile leaders who are out there now, doing their thing.


One person who is regularly in the headlines strikes me as an inspirational leader: Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the President of Ukraine. If you want an example of a man who wasn't born to leadership - he was an actor - but, having had leadership thrust upon him, has really risen to the challenge, you can't go past him. "Cometh the hour, cometh the man," as the saying goes.


On coming to the role of President in 2019 Zelenskyy was initially seen as a somewhat unconventional political figure, but his "outsider" perspective allowed him to connect with a wide range of people who were tired and cynical of traditional politicians. They voted him into office in part because he represented a fresh approach to governing the nation and he inspired hope for change.


When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022 Zelenskyy immediately stepped into the limelight both at home and abroad. His youthful energy and his clear determination and sense of purpose have really resonated with his own people as well as with others beyond Ukraine's borders. The willingness of NATO and other countries to come to Ukraine's aid is in part due to Zelenskyy's "never say die" attitude and his authentic, no-nonsense approach to engaging with people at all levels.


Zelenskyy uses social media and other forms of direct communication to reach the public. Since the Russian war began, Zelenskyy has taken to doing a daily video address to the people, frequently featuring video shot by himself using a hand-held mobile phone. Humility is part of the package: he dresses informally, isn't afraid to put himself in the same dangerous situations faced by his people and his front-line troops, and obviously considers himself to be an ordinary member of society.


When campaigning for office Zelenskyy communicated messages of hope, positive change and national unity. Since the invasion he has continued with that positive, optimistic outlook and added to it a strong refusal to surrender to Russia's aggression.


Whether it's due to a natural aptitude or effective coaching, Zelenskyy embodies many of the traits of inspirational leadership and has earned the respect and trust of not only his own people but of many around the world.


The effects of this kind of leadership are inclusive, uniting, positive, encouraging and reassuring.


Contrast that with some other high-profile world "leaders" - and I hesitate to use the term in connection with some of them - who may have large groups of followers but who really don't meet any of the criteria for an inspirational leader.


In my view, a person is not a leader when they cynically exploit the gullible, the credulous, the ignorant and the just plain stupid by manufacturing a grievance for them to get angry about and then fanning the flames by communicating misleading messages and downright falsehoods. Such a person is only interested in furthering his or her own agenda and acquiring more status, wealth, power and influence along the way. Their motivation for doing what they do is entirely selfish; there is no room for the notion of the greatest good for the greatest number. Their policies centre around principles of might is right, greed is good and the Devil take the hindmost. It might be more appropriate to describe a "leader" like this as a dictator.


Such people tend to adopt an autocratic leadership style in which the only acceptable response to their demands is, "sir! Yes sir!" They expect their fawning, sycophantic acolytes to "do as I say, not as I do." They demand unquestioning loyalty whilst reserving the right to throw any unfortunate follower under a bus at any time and for any reason, including for no reason at all.


The effects of this kind of toxic distortion of leadership are exclusive, divisive, negative, depressing and intimidating.


These are the two extremes: strong, visionary, inspirational leadership on the one hand and despotic, autocratic, divisive dictatorship on the other. Looking around the world today I see examples of both types, but it seems to me that the majority of world leaders fall somewhere in between. For whatever reason, these "in-betweeners" don't seem to have much in the way of a vision for the future of their nation or for the world and seem mainly to concern themselves with ensuring that things don't change too much. In a world in which deep and radical change is becoming ever more desperately needed - for example in responding to climate change - this "sitting on their hands" approach is unacceptable.


There are some current leaders who understand this and who are trying to lead their nation to adopt strong, positive change. They have a compelling vision that they have communicated clearly and unambiguously at every opportunity and they have the support of the majority of thinking people. But, they are being continually resisted by others who lack the vision and the courage to step beyond the familiar status quo. These nay-sayers are often that most dangerous type of political animal - a vested interest masquerading as a moral principle. If you observe the most vocal of these closely you can see them dance as their strings are pulled by their puppeteer masters. Many and various corporations, wealthy individuals and lobby groups have made their most effective investments in purchasing a few politicians and a radio "shock-jock" or two. This combined with constant, carping criticism from a small but vocal band of ultracrepidarian armchair experts with plenty of opinions ("everyone's entitled to my opinion") but no skin in the game represents just one of the challenges that principled leaders must overcome.


A leader who lacks a compelling vision for the future, or who fails to effectively communicate that vision clearly, unambiguously and often, is ineffectual and the best outcome they could expect to achieve would be to maintain the status quo. They run the risk of failing entirely and seeing things slip backwards into chaos and confusion. A leader who allows him- or herself to be overpowered by loud-mouthed vested interests and nay-sayers lacks the personal qualities of effective leadership.


It requires courage to be a strong, principled leader who inspires people to achieve great things. Alongside this, it requires a whole range of personal values and attributes that together qualifies a person to claim the title, "leader."


Of course, a leader is not a leader if they don't have followers. A leader who offers a compelling vision for the future is likely to attract followers who identify with that vision and who share the leader's commitment to achieving it. Being a follower isn't, as many might think, a passive role. If the leader's vision is to be realised, followers must commit to and support the leader's vision, goals and initiatives. They must trust the leader and demonstrate loyalty, dedication and a sense of ownership in their own work. They must actively contribute to achieving the leader's vision by offering their skills, expertise and ideas. They must take the initiative, demonstrate proactivity and seek opportunities to add value.


So let me ask you this: which are you?


Are you:

  • A visionary leader who inspires people to trust you and to follow where you lead because you have persuaded them to share your vision?

  • An in-betweener, sitting on your hands because it's easier than figuring things out for yourself and challenging the status quo?

  • A dictator, focused solely on your own personal interests, prepared to exploit anyone unfortunate enough to come within your sphere of influence?

  • A committed follower who trusts and collaborates with a leader whose vision you share?

  • A self-important armchair expert who prefers to snipe at those who are taking action rather than stick your know-it-all head above the parapet and have a go yourself?

  • A mouthpiece pretending to have principles when in reality you say whatever someone else pays you to say?

Since you are reading this you are clearly not one of the majority group: those who are completely disengaged and disinterested because they believe it's all too hard, it's not their job and they would prefer to veg out in front of the TV, mindlessly watching sport or "Married at First Sight" rather than think about the world and its problems.


Perhaps you are observing the mayhem and wishing there was something you could do to help people to come to their senses?


Right now the world needs visionary leaders and committed, active followers. It does not need more dictators, in-betweeners, experts ("ex" as in has-been and "spurt" as in a drip under pressure,) "yes men," ignorant and/or cynical nay-sayers, "cash for comment" puppets, or helpless passengers who are waiting for someone else to fix things.


Regardless of whether you're a leader or a follower, what the world needs now is for you to take responsibility for yourself, for the decisions you make, the actions you take and the outcomes you achieve. If the idea of accepting that kind of responsibility feels too much for you then you have some work to do on yourself. I created "Foundations of Leadership" for you and others just like you. It will help you to figure out who you are and what you believe about yourself, the world and your place in it, and what sort of leader you want to be; or, if you don't see yourself as a leader, then what sort of leader you want to follow. I'm not promising that one workshop and one book will solve all the problems of the world but they will help, and we have to start somewhere.


Check out my website for details of upcoming workshops - in the process of being updated as I write - and find my eBook Foundations of Leadership in my online store.


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