True leaders inspire us and we trust them. We listen to what they say and we accept what they decide. This is because leaders do and say things that make us feel good about ourselves. And what they do we believe in, often without need of explanation or a spelling out of logic.
Heroes are a little different. They motivate us because they are admirable. They do what we would like to do. We can imagine ourselves slaying the dragon and winning the adoration of the damsel or, if you prefer, as a heroine beating up the patriarchy to create equality and emancipation. Our heroes actually do these things. Heroism generally requires conflict.
In our modern ritualized world, our heroes do our fighting for us or they act bravely in the face of danger. Leaders can do these heroic things for they too have courage. Only they do them without having to fight.
Leaders show the way forward as not only the logical but the truthful path. They do this instinctively; picking their way with ease through the complexity of options to choose those that really make sense. They can slay the dragon if needs must, only they will more likely convince it to live happily on the top of the mountain.
They also have vision. A clear notion of what the future looks like that is not an idealized utopia but achievable and likely futures. And leaders are not afraid to explain the future to followers and skeptics alike. The dragon will live on the mountain and will not visit the valley unless invited.
And there is one more critical element that sets leaders apart from both heroes and mere mortals: they can combine fearless vision with timing. They know instinctively how to act and when to act to achieve the desired outcome. Heroes are presented with their opportunity and instinctively move to the front of the cowering throng sword in hand. Leaders anticipate the dragon’s arrival and go outside the village to engage the foe on neutral ground.
It takes courage, smarts and conviction to be a leader. It also needs a certain lightness of hand (and word) dispensed with ease and grace. And wisdom helps, preferably born of experience, or where time has yet to allow for this, then from instinct.
There have always been leaders who have most of these things and these people have become important in our societies. You could probably name your own favorite. And if we did a survey of favorites, the majority of the many leaders that people would chose to name as inspirational come from the past. Many favorites will be historical, a few will be modern, but hardly any will be in public office. Bar the notable exception of a few charismatic entrepreneurs, our current leaders do little to inspire us. This is especially true in politics.
And then there is one final, and perhaps the most critical, quality of leaders, one that seems to be missing from all modern political leaders. That is the ability to realize that leadership is not about them, even though they must be strong, stand out and even be heroic. Leadership is actually about the outcome, the means proposed to get there and the timing of the actions. So true leaders must have humility. The quality of knowing that it is just a channel that they present to the people who look to them.
People follow what they intuitively know to be right. All they need is for it to be presented. Sometimes we are conned. A few infamous historical leaders have taken their people down horror roads through force of rhetoric and oratory but have all fallen when the truth came out. When it became clear they lacked humility they were ousted. It sometimes took a great effort but they did not survive any more than the pathways they proposed.
So in the end leadership cannot be about being heroic because actually we lead ourselves. All that leaders really do is show us the way. Outcomes happen as each one of us as individuals take responsibility.
Mental musings on leadership might help a little. The real issue is what the future holds and who will lead us to it.
In our children’s lifetimes we will reach 9 billion souls, oil will be $200 a barrel making alternative energy an economic imperative, agricultural soils will show the symptoms of overuse and we will have to wrestle with the consequences of land, water and food shortages. These things will happen with or without climate change and we will want wise heads to lead us through the challenges with confidence and surety.
Can we expect this from our political elite? Yes we can. Indeed we should demand it.
We should ask for courage, smarts, timing and, most of all, humility.