Sometimes the easiest way to decide what to do is first to determine what you don’t want to do. Likewise, the first and easiest step in identifying a “leader” is to define what a leader is NOT.
This past Spring, a high school Junior from an affluent public school district in the San Francisco Bay Area was stripped of his win as 2017-2018 Class President after he used Islamophobic slurs in his campaign videos. Though he arguably broke various conduct rules, the only discipline he faced was forfeiting the title of Class President.
He wasn’t suspended or otherwise reprimanded. In fact, in the end, the school district caved on their initial disciplinary action after the boy’s parents hired a First Amendment attorney to sue the district on their son’s behalf. The boy will serve his full term next year.
So, we’re left to determine what actions or traits should rightfully disqualify a title-holder from his leadership role.
In a business setting, with shareholders’ interests at stake, the decision to change company leadership can be simpler (look at Uber, GE and J.Crew, for instance). If shareholders get up in arms or pull their funds over a current leader’s actions (or inactions), the board of directors is likely to recommend the leader’s resignation or dismissal. It’s an easy, get-a-CEO-out-of-the-job-quick move.
But what about leaders for the people, such as the student body president or the leader of the free world? If no crime has been committed, what behaviors or character traits should disqualify someone from maintaining office?
Here are a few, to start. Please share your own.
Defensiveness. If you’re compelled to address every rumor, insult or innuendo directed your way, you’re not a good leader. Good leaders sleep at night knowing who they are. They have “thick skin” for criticism because they believe in their actions and they act with transparency. They also pay others to communicate with voices (and Tweets) of reason. They let the professionals carefully evaluate all messaging to ensure they don’t stoop to the below-the-belt level of their critics.
Single-mindedness. If you are always right, and others’ points of view are not as valid as your own, you’re a weak leader. Good leaders know there are several sides to every story and several ways of addressing challenges or opportunities. They learn from their adversaries! They welcome the chance to dig for “the why” behind differing opinions. A good leader may not need to change her mind or agree with her dissenters, but she at least understands the complexity of their experiences and values their thinking. She’s willing to listen and learn.
Braggadociosness. A famous person does not need the word “famous” before their name. If your strengths, reputation and attributes do not speak for themselves, you are not a good leader. Good leaders do not prove their intelligence by screaming, “I’m smart!” They do smart things, such as positioning themselves for opportunities to shine.
Martyrdom. Sigh… the martyr. He’s everyone’s hero. He walked uphill, both ways, in the snow. And, no one ever appreciates him. If you feel like an underappreciated hero, patiently awaiting the statue to be erected in your honor, then – spoiler alert – you are no leader. Leadership can be thankless work, but the true leader doesn’t seek or need gratification. If they receive any, it’s a gift, a bonus that eliminates the need to brag.
Bullying. We might follow a great leader off an apparent cliff because she inspires us. We trust her. She is knowledgeable and looking out for our best interests. But the loud mouth who yells, calls people names and berates others in support of her way as the only way, is not a leader. She’s a bully.
Narcissism. Let’s face it, you can’t win a leadership role if you’re not visible or known and aren’t willing to put yourself out there. Charisma and willingness to promote oneself are both necessary. Shining bright and standing tall, noting accomplishments and padding a CV are all important steps on the path to leadership for many roles. After all, no board is going to appoint a CEO they’ve never heard of; no student council is going to elect a president who has always hidden in the shadows; and no organized body is going to elect someone they’ve never heard of.
That said, the need to stand tall or take credit for one’s successes doesn’t justify selfishness or narcissism. The person who pursues and defends only her own interests, making all others feel as if they are on the leader’s team, solely as a means of supporting her? She is not a leader.
Getting back to the Bay Area student, the boy’s supporters have even started a GoFundMe campaign that has raised more than $28,000 for the family’s costs of suing the school district for “institutional bullying” against their son. That’s their right. If, as they claim, their son was “bullied” and “stripped of his education”, then I wish them well in their pursuits. Perhaps their son should have still been allowed to attend the leadership class from which he had been barred during his Junior year. But because he was reinstated as Student Body President for his Senior year, he’ll have plenty of opportunities to attend the class starting this fall.
Let’s hope he pays attention in class and learns more about what leader is – and is NOT.