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David Hanlin: Political leadership

August 07, 2013|By DAVID HANLIN

While traveling recently, I had cause to look through an airport bookstore or two. What impressed me was the number of books on the topic of leadership. Many people aspire to be leaders. While some people are born with certain attributes that help, people are not born leaders. It takes work to actually become a leader. Leaders are made through experience, study and mentoring. In general, those who are leaders want to become better leaders. 

Because of my interest in this topic, I recently purchased a book, “Leadership 2.0,” written by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves. The authors don’t define leadership. They draw a distinction between basic and great leaders, and discuss the skills that make great leaders. They use the terms “core leadership skills” and “adaptive leadership skills” to draw the distinction.

Core leadership skills are those basic skills that, at the minimum, are necessary. These include vision, foresight and the ability to develop a course of action, and to communicate the goal and rally others to pursue that course. But of foremost importance is the willingness to act. Taking action often means being willing to take risks. Sometimes, confusing information and imperfect timing paralyze people into inaction. A leader with core skills must be able to see through these obstacles and find a way to achieve the goal.  

Beyond core leadership, according to the authors, the greatest leaders possess a combination of skills, perspective and effort that distinguish them from others. The authors refer to these as adaptive skills. Adaptive leadership requires a heightened ability to adapt to different situations. This requires flexibility on the part of the leader. Great leaders are able to communicate a course of action that few others can even see.  This is possible because great leaders understand one of the biggest obstacles — their own emotions and the emotions of others. By understanding emotions, they are able to convey meaning and effectively communicate. 

Truly great leaders respect others’ emotions and opinions. By respecting others, the leader takes into consideration the emotions and opinions of others in formulating a course that will lead through challenging situations. Because they respect others, great leaders don’t avoid the truth. They help people understand the truth. They don’t pander. They don’t distort or fabricate facts in order to manipulate people. They respect fairness, share information and have a genuine concern for the welfare of others.

The greatest leaders know they don’t have all the answers.  Acknowledging this fact allows them to seek input from others, celebrate new ideas and commit to lifelong learning. They embrace new ideas that will advance the greater good.  Achieving a greater good by incorporating opinions and emotions of others imparts credibility on a great leader. Also, great leaders are not threatened by others; in fact, they help others become better leaders. 

Another adaptive skill possessed by the greatest leaders is that of strong character by demonstrating high levels of integrity. They act consistent with the beliefs, values and principles that they espouse. They walk the walk.

Last year, in a series of occasional columns in The Herald-Mail, Art Callaham wrote about leadership, especially political leadership. He seemed to challenge our politicians to become better leaders. But in today’s political environment it is increasingly difficult for politicians to demonstrate great leadership.

The current environment thrives on criticism and tearing down of ideas. It is easy to capitulate to the blowing winds of a few voices or pander to those who are ill-informed or have a vested interest. It is easy to surrender to “the will of the people” who might not understand the issue at hand. It is far harder to describe a vision, seek input, build a coalition of support, adjust that vision and still achieve a greater good.  

I do not want to be misunderstood. Most political figures are good people. But I question whether we really want our politicians to be great leaders.

Do we elect individuals who possess the skills outlined by Bradbury and Greaves? If flexibility is a desired skill in a political leader, why do we insist they be inflexible? Why do we resort to name calling of those politicians who demonstrate flexibility? Do we elect politicians who are rigid thinkers, or do we elect leaders who seek out new ways of thinking and consider other ways of viewing issues? Do we know our political leaders well enough to know whether they have personal integrity? Do we put our faith in politicians who manipulate information or do we elect those who fastidiously stick to the facts? Are we attracted to clichés and platitudes that play to our emotions, or do we seek political leaders of substance?

I bet if these questions are answered honestly, is it little wonder that our system doesn’t work as well as some would like.

David Hanlin is a Hagerstown resident. His email address is davidhanlin54@gmail.com.






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