What qualities make someone a leader?
When I was in college, and involved in many groups and the campus paper, we spent a lot of time talking about what is ideal for someone in a position to lead others. I realized then, and acutely so now, that people have vastly different opinions about what is a good for the person in charge.
Being in charge depends somewhat on the organization—a coalition designed to uplift and support black people should be led by a black person; an LGBTQ-action group ought to be led by an LGBTQ person; a group of moms ideally will be led by someone who is also a mother. I understand that sometimes this is impossible or exploitative—but sufficient effort must be made to have the leader ‘match up’ with the values promoted by the group.
When that group is all of us—Americans—it gets a little murkier. How can we select one individual who not only represents all of us, but can embody the ideals that we stand for—especially when those representations and ideals vary so greatly? What skills and strengths must that person have? Has anyone thought about what that list of values might look like?
To some people, sadly, those qualities include being a man; being white; being a Christian, straight, cisgender, upper-middle-class, able-bodied. FDR’s poll numbers would have been dismally lower had the general public known he used a wheelchair for the majority of his mobility needs, despite the fact that he was one of the most influential and celebrated presidents in our nation’s history. Still more would have jumped ship had they known he had been unfaithful to Eleanor—fidelity being a value that, apparently, is not as sacred in today’s society for a president.
To others, those qualities include the cutthroat, tough-as-nails exterior that can reaffirm America’s might (as if it needed that). Often this aligns with capitalistic trappings, shown by the consistent flock of supporters trailing behind those with wealth, which (for so many) is synonymous with powerful—regardless of how this person amassed such wealth, including the potential disregard of morals it took to get there. Although unabashed honesty is an important quality for a president, history teaches us that a successful business model usually involves a degree of deception. Americans desire a strong sense of trustworthiness in their leader, yet turncoats and frenemies are integral parts in thriving white-collar worlds. How do we as individuals, and a country, grapple with that paradox?
While it is necessary for a leader of a nation to be steeled and realistic toward potential displays of force, countless numbers place high regard for experience and ambition in military control. But I would argue this concoction of strength also includes objectivity, patience, decisiveness, and perception—and specifically discourages knee-jerk, emotional (irrational) reactions; operating on a bite-sized, superficial analysis; and premature self-serving aggrandizement.
Those who value the strong often gravitate toward decisive, relentless ambition. Still others uphold a more humble courage balanced with selflessness, compassion, kindness, and understanding. Few individuals are capable of even attempting the balancing act of trying to please all of us. But this discussion about values, and how we align the hierarchy of what we find important, can be a telling exercise indeed.
Perhaps the real reason for all of this is the distorted perception that so many have about what it means to be strong, successful, a leader, or even a ‘good’ person.