If leadership is defined as the ability to bring influence to bear upon others, then we are all leaders in ways great or small: at home, in school, at work, in various types of groups and associations, perhaps even in the broader community. Boundaries of this nature being porous, influence will often drift onto the territory of power and authority, whether of the formal or informal kinds.
Someone’s impact may be very profound but within a narrow circle (e.g. parents with their children), or more superficial but over a broader base (e.g. the president of your neighborhood association). Many permutations of scope and impact are possible and I’m sure you can come up with great examples of your own. In some leaders, great influence comes together with considerable reach, forming strong waves that extend in many directions and towards a great many people.
Confidence is an important leadership trait but too much confidence soon bleeds into arrogance and hubris. If you hold a leadership role of any type, you should probably pause every once in a while to ask yourself, sincerely, how well you’re doing in that role. But even if you’re inclined towards this kind of introspection, what is the relevant frame of reference against which to assess things?
One tempting way of answering this question is to focus narrowly on results or deliverables. By this measure, a person who occupies a leadership position should self-assess against how much he or she is able to bring others to accomplish, and perhaps how good this output can be said to be. But this is much too narrow a view, as it says nothing about how the results were achieved, nor about the very desirability of those results.
The gold standard of leadership, in my view, is one that refers back to some notion of the greater or common good. This concept is fraught and has been much debated but I offer here three short quotes from philosopher John Finnis that you may find helpful in framing your refection on the responsibility of leaders:
- “The common good is the good of individuals, living together and depending on one another in ways that favour the well-being of each.” (1)
- “Individuals can only be selves—i.e. have the ‘dignity’ of being ‘responsible agents’—if they are not made to live their lives for the convenience of others…” (2)
- “Tyranny is any self-interested rule (where self is any number, not concerned with the common good but with their own interests).” (3)
Taken together, those three quotes form a simple and elegant framework and offer a great starting point for the kind of essential introspection I referenced at the beginning of this article. Good leadership, in this view, is to be assessed in relation to some common good, itself understood in the context of the dignity of individuals, who should never be treated as mere means for achieving one’s ends. Good leaders are those who strive to advance common pursuits with a genuine respect for the interests and dignity of others, while poor leaders, forgetting the responsibility they owe to those who get caught in the wake of their influence, put their own interests ahead of their duty to others.
“Simple” you might say, “but neither easy nor straightforward.” Indeed, balancing multiple imperatives—and especially imperatives of such a hefty nature—is often not an easy matter. But this lies at the very heart of any leader’s role and the greater the impact (real or potential), the greater the responsibility and the demands that come with it. Seeking advice and feedback is a great starting point (provided you are willing to listen) but at the end of the day, you are likely the only person who will ever know the motivations or intent that drive your decisions as a leader (and yes, intent does matter).
(1) Finnis, John, 2011, Natural Law and Natural Rights, Oxford: Clarendon Press; 2nd ed., p. 305.
(2) Id., p. 272.
(3) Id., p. 469.