Leaders We Will Follow

The craziness of this election year is in full swing.  The Michigan presidential primary took place last week, with Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton leaving as winners.  Unfortunately, because of a dispute between the state and national parties over moving the primary to an earlier date, Michigan Democrats have been stripped of their delegates at the Democratic National Convention.  Consequently, none of the Democratic candidates campaigned in Michigan.

That didn’t stop the “personal” phone calls from Republicans Romney, Mike Huckabee, and John McCain, however. 

“It’s Saturday evening, but I’m taking the time to call you.”  (Yeah, right)

“A lot of people are running, but I really care about Michigan and about you.” (Really?)

“I can turn Michigan into an economic powerhouse again.”  (Show me)

I admit that I have little patience for the incessant reporting on the election.  The media scraped the bottom of the barrel a week ago when one of the morning news programs showed each of the front-runners holding the same baby.  The question was: what does the ability of a candidate to hold and interact with a baby say about their personality and ability to lead a country?

What is it that influences Americans to vote for one candidate over another, anyway?  Is it religion, race, gender, appearance, political party, specific issues, hair style, or negative campaigning?  On this Martin Luther King, Jr. day, I am reminded of an encounter between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama a few weeks ago.  Evidently, Clinton made a remark about King that Obama deemed racially insensitive.  Prominent black supporters of Obama slammed Clinton, with Clinton’s top black supporters retorting that Obama insulted Clinton’s long-standing advocacy for racial justice.  Just another day on the campaign trail, you may say.  Still, it bothers me. 

On the other hand, the fact that we have both a woman and an African American as presidential candidates is amazing in itself.  It is also a tribute to the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.  Because he led the way in opening the door of equal opportunity to African Americans, the door continues to open for all those who whose race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or social status may have set them apart in the past.     

What qualities do Americans seek in their presidential candidates?  For the past 25 years, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, co-authors of the bestselling book, The Leadership Challenge, have asked people around the world the following question, “What do you look for and admire in a leader, someone whose direction you would willingly follow?”  In a November 4, 2007, column, Kouzes says that, amazingly, the results do not significantly vary demographically, organizationally, or culturally.

There are 4 qualities that people consistently look for in leaders, qualities that, if present, would cause people to follow them willingly.

  • Honest
  • Forward-looking
  • Inspiring
  • Competent

According to Kouzes, “Three of these four key characteristics—honest, competent, and inspiring—make up what communications experts refer to as ‘source credibility.’  More than anything, people want leaders in whom they can believe. Credibility is the foundation of leadership.  Period.  Full stop.  Put another way, if you don’t believe in the messenger, you won’t believe the message.”

Of course, these qualities don’t simply apply to political leaders.  They characterize great leadership in the church as well.  Above all else, church leaders, whether lay leaders, clergy, district superintendents or bishops, need to be persons of “source credibility” and character.  People will not follow our leadership if they cannot trust us.  Skills can be taught, but passion, humility, a desire for excellence, and motivation only come from deep within our heart.

The fourth characteristic that sets great leaders apart from ordinary leaders is that great leaders are forward-looking.  They have a concrete vision for the future and can explain that vision in clear and compelling ways.  People the world over want leaders who know where they are going and are willing to be bold in their risk-taking in order to lead others to a future with hope. 

I would add a fifth characteristic to Koezes’ leadership qualities.  I believe that people look for leaders who are collaborative.  They want leaders who do not make unilateral decisions but seek honest, open input from others.  They want leaders who do not gather around them “yes” people, but encourage others to “push back” and challenge them if they get off track.  Great leaders know that they do not have all the answers, so they trust the synergy of group process. 

Leaders we will follow know when decisions are theirs to make, but they also share power, responsibility and decision-making.  They empower others to be transformed and become transformers themselves.  At the same time, they don’t set people loose without having systems of accountability in place. 

The desire to collaborate goes far beyond those on our own team, however.  Great leaders are highly skilled at bringing people to the table who disagree, are on opposite sides of an issue, or may even be enemies.  Great leaders are always seeking common ground.

  • Honest, forward-looking, inspiring, competent, collaborative

How will you vote this fall? 

Blessings, Laurie

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