Waxing Philosophic about Leadership


The above picture is not me.  The guy in the picture is long dead.  His views influenced Thomas Jefferson, according to the “Top 10 Greatest Philosophers in History”, was a great liberal (he just doesn’t have the beard to prove it).

This is John Locke.

So, you ask “why am I going to read about a dead philosopher today?”  Good question.  You’re not.  I’m simply going to touch on some philosophy that’s been rattling around in my head for a few years.

I’ve held a philosophy about people for some time now.  I was unable to articulate my views, but I had these very closely held beliefs about how people operate, the environments in which people thrive and 99% of humanity’s desires.  I can not point to one specific book I read, one pivotal moment in my life or anything like that.  I simply attribute my views to a keen observation of people, self-awareness (still working on this one), my formative years and my non-formative years (eg: work years).  Finally, in one of my classes, we discussed and expanded on my views; not because I decided to talk about my philosophy, but rather because the professor teaches leadership and this is his philosophy, and mostly, because it appears to work in most situations.

I’ve felt the following:
– People need honest feedback and feedforward, both good and bad as long as it’s honest
– People respond positively in environments in which they are able to make their own choices
– Honest listening is not simply nodding and agreeing while formulating my rebuttal (or addition) to the conversation, but rather is clearing your mind of all other distractions while learning from the other person (and everyone has something to teach, however small)
– People need a framework from which to work, but near full autonomy within that framework (don’t micromanage)
– Rewards work (punishments work as well, just not as intended)
– People need to know that they are not just a number or a cog to be replaced at ease.  Each person is an individual and that person adds to humanity’s greater good

In class, my professor listed a bunch of points for Leadership.  These points are:
– Develop a vision
– Simplify the message
– Trust your subordinates
– Be an expert (and know when to ask questions)
– Encourage risk (Go easy on failure)
– Invite dissent (have the ability to listen to different points of view)
– Keep your cool

In addition, my professor hammered into us that true leaders are “Servant Leaders” and what he termed “SuperLeaders”.  Servant Leaders include some of the best leaders we can remember: Gandhi, Lincoln, MLK Jr, the list goes on.  The first (roughly) two minutes of this clip from Gandhi (1982) sort-of demonstrates what I’m talking about: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WW3uk95VGes  This isn’t the best example, but it’s along the lines of what a Servant/SuperLeader does.  A SuperLeader is a leader that leads others to lead themselves.  Think Demi Moore’s character in A Few Good Men (an exceedingly good movie about leadership).

While I was unable to articulate what a leader is or does, I knew what it meant to be a leader.  This class was finally able to explain it to me in a way that I can attempt to explain to others.  This class taught me why some people are ‘leaders’ but they have trouble leading without ‘authority’.  Think Kim Jong Un, Col Jessup (Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men), the Mob Boss, maybe your personal boss.  They say “Do this because I say so”.

There is a middle category of leaders who allow processes and procedures to guide their interactions.  Think Lt. Kaffee (Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men), many many many bosses.  They may say “I got here by following these rules, so everyone will follow these rules.”  Or, “If I develop these policies and procedures, the company will function better.”

The third category of leaders establishes a value system and leads simply by living the his/her value system.  Lt. Cmd Galloway (Demi Moore in A Few Good Men), Lincoln, Gandhi, MLK, maybe you even add religious leaders to the bunch: Jesus, Muhammad, Gautama Buddha, etc.  Some of these leaders were extremely vocal, others not so much, but look at what they all accomplished: freedom from tyranny in the US, non-violent resistance to oppression in India and the US, any of the major religions.  While these leaders have died, their ability to lead continues to this day.  They are able to lead today through their value system.

This class allowed me to elevate my thinking regarding the definition of true Leadership.  I learned that when someone messes up, even if it costs your company $30k, you don’t demote the guy and reduce his pay.  If you’re a true leader, you would pull the guy aside, review what went wrong, determine a path forward, and simply say “I know you’ll do better in the future.”

I was there when we demoted the individual for causing a mistake which cost our company $30k.  The boss knew that I didn’t have the guts/cajones/?? to do the demotion myself, so he sent our business consultant to do the dirty work.  I couldn’t look the demotee in the eyes for a while.  I felt that it was a sign of my weakness as a leader.  I have since learned that it was a sign of weakness on my part – that I didn’t stand up for the demotee and say “there is a better way to do this, one which will build this guy as an employee.  We don’t need to tear him down.”

The goal of demoting the employee was to make our company stronger by removing ‘weak links’.  Perversely, this action actually had the exact opposite effect.  By demoting the employee, we weakened our company while if we had worked with the employee, we would have strengthened our company.  Remember: rewards and punishments work, just not always as intended.

Through this class, I have learned that true Leadership (SuperLeadership / Servant Leadership) takes tremendous guts, more than any other style of leadership.  Put yourself in Lincoln/MLK/Gandhi/[Name your religious leader’s shoes] and imagine the crystal clear vision they must have had in order to stand up to session/dogs, fire hoses/the British Army/[Name your oppressor].

I know that I am principled, I just need to be brave enough to stand up for my convictions.


(Photo Credit: http://listverse.com/2011/02/19/top-10-greatest-philosophers-in-history/)