Leaders should appreciate the challenge to greatness.
I want to propose to all who serve in leadership that they discover a renewed appreciation for the personal challenge to greatness. The last couple of decades have given us a lot of insights into leadership: knowledge, skills, and attitudes. However, much of this has clouded the reality that leadership is a vocation. You can have all the skills in the world, but they will not make you into a great leader if you lack the inner spiritual transformation that produces a vision of hope within the plan of God. Moreover, the conviction that everyone is called to participate in leadership has been a great motivator within organizations. However, while everyone is called to participate in leadership not everyone is called to be a great leader. If everyone is a leader, then of course, no one is, and the call to great leadership loses its attraction and fades away. The notion of distributed leadership has blocked the appreciation of the need of exceptional, great leaders. I appreciate that most change percolates up from the grassroots and does not filter down from high up in a structure. Nevertheless, only a great leader perceives this, acts upon it, and guides the process.
We cannot get out of the mess we are in without leaders who appreciate their call to greatness. Like prophets of old, they will be criticized, lonely in their vocation, viewed as outsiders, and rejected for being different. However, all forms of social institutions today are in crisis. No one looks to the majority of today’s “leaders” with hope, since the “leadership” of most of these people depresses us. Even organizations that claim to know about the future hopes of humankind are more frequently attached to the past and need to be dragged screaming into change that can lead society to renewal.
I hope some readers of this blog will be willing to prepare themselves to be leaders. Call is something we cannot control, but those willing can prepare themselves so that when call comes they will be ready. Of course, no one prepares himself or herself to be great, but rather to respond to the need to serve others. Greatness is never pursued for itself; it is always a byproduct of service. There is something noble and satisfying about giving oneself to the betterment of others, to the pursuit of goals that enrich humankind. This is a calling that leads to greatness; leadership is the medium through which one expresses one’s deepest values.
When we look at the responses of people throughout the world to their current leaders, and when we see just how much people are longing for men and women who will lead them out of the mess we are in, then we see that there is a deep yearning for new leaders who will give themselves to public service. We need leaders who will focus on others and not on themselves, on selfless service and not on accumulation of power or wealth, on what is best for each one and not on promoting the latest trivia of their agendas. We must find a way forward for those willing to take it and daily work on how one can nurture the call to leadership.
Leadership is given to people of integrity by their followers who can just as easily withdraw it. Some pseudo-leaders can try to achieve credibility by simply acting the part. Followers soon notice this. In fact, when a leader gives merely lip service to something, he or she gets lip service back from followers. Quality leadership is exercised within a trusting environment. Trust is the emotional glue that binds followers and leaders together. When a trusting environment exists followers confidently rely on the authenticity of their leaders. However, a trusting environment also becomes the foundation for mutual respect, confident risk taking, partnership, and collaboration. In a trusting environment both leaders and followers know that each respects the competence of the other, grants them freedom to act and even to make mistakes, indentifies the blind spots throughout the organization, and will always highlight the positive wherever it is to be found. Failed organizations that lack trust still exist all over the world, riddled with control, rigidity, guilt, fear, intimidation, political infighting, suppression of dissent, and so on. These organizations are spiritually impoverished. Creating an environment of trust means eliminating fear of others’ failures or competence, being able to live with ambiguity, always being ready to show flexibility, and appreciating the individuality of each one in the pursuit of a common goal. Creating a trusting environment requires a new set of virtues from leader and follower alike, as they will need to establish clear and practical institutional goals to maintain this working environment in which alone integrity can flourish.
When a leader witnesses to a firm sense of inner and outer reality, opens up all lines of communication, and integrates all into the pursuit of the organization’s goals, he or she binds the organization closer together. Followers recognize the leader’s integrity and feel more intimately part of the organization, are increasingly proud of their organization, and manifest a greater sense of ownership of the organization and its shared vision.
Integrity is directly linked to the pursuit of excellence. Persons who are really in touch with themselves make the best leaders. They evidence dignity in their service of others and appear to others as having healthy self esteem, socially satisfied, and fulfilled. They are known for their abiding sense of excellence, inner directedness, integrity, and commitment. These moral leaders are creators and stewards of core values; while always sensitive to the needs of followers, they above all stand tall for the values of the organization. They affirm, regenerate and renew institutions. They freely choose their own identity, and it includes to be known for integrity. They constantly foster trust, maintain open communication, and can let go of their own control to others. They are aware that their leadership has lasting value on their own lives, the quality of their work, the development of their community, and society in general. Such leaders gain stature among their peers, respect from superiors, even when they do not agree, admiration from people who do not share their views, and personal vocational fulfillment. Leaders who have integrity can handle conflict well for they are always willing to learn and always ready to treat others with understanding and compassion. They can relieve anger in a group by allowing discussion of the “undiscussible,” in fact, they can do the same with their opposition. Having worked hard for something and even been committed to it, they can also conclude with inner freedom and a non-defensive approach “this reality is no longer acceptable.”
Motivated by authenticity, ethical sensibility, and genuine spirituality, leaders of integrity are people of inner serenity and peace, resist being controlled, learn to skillfully neglect the petty or inauthentic values of their own organizations, find common ground with all kinds of groups, and can give comfort or create disturbance as appropriate. They love the institutions they lead and at the same time maintain a healthy skepticism toward them. Their authenticity and integrity lift the spirits of everyone and give hope to followers and community around them.
Followers give power and authority to people of integrity (referent power), they are proud of their organization, feel a genuine sense of ownership of it, and experience team spirit with the leader. Perhaps the greatest result in the lives of leaders of integrity is that they transform their institutions through ongoing conversion. Facilitating institutional conversion is a leader’s primary task and is impossible without individual integrity. It needs to be clear to followers what the leader stands for and that he or she will be firmly dedicated to the mission and vision.