Leadership for What?

“When you cease to make a contribution, you begin to die.” 

- Eleanor Roosevelt

I frequently begin leadership workshops with the following question: “how do you define leadership?” I find this an intriguing way to start a conversation as it gets a new group to begin to think about this complex topic and it ignites a broad discussion. In response you could Google the word “leadership”, but you will get a large and varied number of definitions.

After a while I tell the group that I prefer the definition provided by President Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower once observed, “Leadership is the ability to decide what has to be done, and then get people to want to do it.” I find this particularly fascinating. Eisenhower was one of only a handful of five star generals in the history of our nation and subsequently served two terms as President. He was also President of Columbia University. You might imagine that having held these lofty positions Ike would have been use to just giving orders and expecting them to be carried out immediately and vigorously. But he was wise enough to realize that to get the maximum effort from any follower or team meant getting them to want to do it.

Still this definition fails to answer a second fundamental question: leadership for what purpose? Why bother? I think the answer to this question is simply – to make a difference. Good leaders want their organizations to succeed, and they want the members of the team to succeed as well. They want the organization to provide a valuable service or product while conforming to a set of values that both they and their employees can identify and be proud of.

I recently came across a piece of poetry that in many ways sums up my belief on what is leadership for. It is entitled To Be of Use and is written by Marge Piercy who is an American poet, novelist, and social activist. She is the author of the New York Times bestseller Gone to Soldier, a sweeping historical novel set during World War II.

To Be of Use

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Good leaders want to be individually useful, and they also seek to make the organizations they head useful to others. They are people of courage who are willing to take risks to accomplish this goal. This reminds me of the comments of another famous American president, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt delivered a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris on 23 April 1910. On page seven of the thirty-five page speech is the following passage which is commonly referred to as The Man in the Arena:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Many leaders have used this quote since. Nelson Mandela gave a copy of it to Francois Pienaar, captain of the South African rugby team, before the start of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, in which the South African side eventually defeated the heavily favor New Zealand All Blacks.