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Not Everyone Should Lead

Leadership

I always find it interesting—or maybe troubling—when people encourage everyone to go out and vote on election day. Don’t get me wrong; I’m an ardent fan of democracy. I just don’t think it’s a good idea for people to vote unless they’ve taken the time to understand the issues and make informed decisions. It would be far better, in my opinion, if those who are too busy or disinterested to stay abreast of the issues exercised restraint on election day. I think that makes perfect sense, and yet is often viewed as politically or socially incorrect.

Well, I have a similar attitude about leadership. Whenever I hear someone encourage all young people to become leaders, or better yet, when I hear a young person say glibly that he or she wants to be a leader someday, I feel compelled to ask the question “why?”

If the answer is “because I want to make a difference” or “I want to change the world,” I get a little skeptical and have to ask a follow-up question: “Why and in what way do you want to change the world?” If they struggle to answer that question, I discourage them from becoming a leader.

Why? Because a leader who doesn’t know why he or she wants to lead is almost always motivated by self-interest. Whether that manifests itself in terms of fame or money or power, it is a very dangerous thing.

True leadership, the kind that results in the greater good, requires a level of selflessness and vision that most people simply don’t have. We forget the loneliness and sacrifice and great personal risk that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln endured during their times, and that the personal benefits they received for their sacrifices were minimal, if not non-existent. But that is what was—and is—required of any truly great leader, which explains why leadership is a rare trait in society, and always has been.

When people without selflessness become leaders, they often end up exploiting people and leaving them worse off. As long as they escape relatively unscathed, they feel that they have succeeded. And this is not limited to CEOs of big companies or members of Congress, though those cases are both more public and potentially harmful. It applies to small business owners, little league coaches, school principals and mid-level managers as well.

Perhaps that’s why society has become so cynical about leaders, especially in the world of politics and, more recently, big business. People have come to expect—even accept—that their leaders are motivated by fame and fortune more than real service. Which is a shame because we are starting to get cynical as a society. As a result, the wrong people are being drawn into positions of leadership for all the wrong reasons.

So what is the solution? Like so many other aspects of life, it is both simple and difficult. First, we have to stop hiring, appointing and electing people who are ego-driven. That requires a level of discretion and vigilance on the part of CEOs, hiring managers, boards of directors, and yes, even voters. Of course, that means we also have to work hard to discern why a person is truly motivated to seek a position of leadership, and be wary of anyone who lacks humility, maturity and selflessness.

When it comes to elected office, this will require voters to pay close attention to the candidates who plea for their support. And if voters can’t find the time and energy to do that, then the wisest decision they could make would be to exercise restraint and stay home on election day.