Everyone these days, it seems, is talking about leadership. And, for good reason: We are in desperate need of good leadership. But what is good leadership?
When I studied leadership theory as a graduate student, I was quite interested to see that the literature on leadership usually seemed to consider two archetypal leaders in contemplating the question of what is good leadership: Lincoln and Hitler.
Now it may be a surprise that these two would be of such great interest to those who consider what good leadership looks like. After all, isn’t leadership all about effectiveness in achieving your aims? Well—yes. But it’s really not as simple as that.
Both of these leaders were effective in achieving their aims. Lincoln was effective in maintaining the union. And Hitler was devastatingly effective in achieving his aims. Some would say he nearly succeeded—except for the fact that he nearly destroyed those whom he led while pursuing those ends.
Travelling in Berlin the summer before last, I had the great joy of exploring buildings that had been nearly bombed to the ground and are now beautifully restored and seeing and hearing the kind of progressive social thought that is so alive in Germany today. At one of the museums, I saw a small replica of a Judenbad I had toured when I was an exchange student in Speier am Rhein in southern Germany in the 1970s. Then, that same ceremonial bath for Jewish women in a walled garden had only recently been rediscovered for what it was, as it had been used as a garbage dump for so long. And, one day, travelling in a rail car I looked out and saw a badly damaged building and asked my instructor about it. He said briefly “Bomb damage from the war.” As I flew out of Berlin a year ago last August, and looked down upon the great patches of greenery in an otherwise densely-populated city, I wondered if that was also, ultimately, sky-level evidence of the city’s recovery.
Good leadership is not just about effectiveness. Frankly, many of us probably have business-based stories along these lines. It’s entirely possible to be effective in achieving your objectives while leaving behind you “scorched earth” in terms of the effect on the people you lead.
That’s not good leadership.