Two readers recently expressed concern about who will lead the Arab countries should more dictators fall. They fear that people will install new dictators—self-proclaimed saviors who will make promises only to prove to be no less ethical, moral or democratic than their predecessors. I share their concern, and it’s terrifying to think that people may be dying in vain.
As I pondered this, I realized the lessons I learned about leaders here in the U.S. from 20 plus years of political work can easily apply to leaders of cities and nations beyond U.S. borders. So, I thought to share my perspective in the form of 15 characteristics I have compiled.
But first I should say that a small handful of leaders I've worked with may recognize some points as their own, and they probably are. I have had the privilege of working for some incredible people and being in very instructive situations. I am so grateful for those lessons, and I hope they can be useful elsewhere. Here they are.
A good leader must:
· Want to do the job with every fiber of his/her being. It must be a calling or a mission and not a step on the ladder of power. Too many leaders have grand plans for their own future and casual commitment to their current office or constituents.
· Make decisions form a solid, mature “center”. This is my word for having unshakeable values and beliefs that guide actions. Most politicians operate without a center. They lack focus and rarely accomplish anything of value.
· Be honest with their supporters, staff and constituents at all times regardless of how difficult a situation or crisis may be. To have and keep a mandate to govern at any level, there is no substitute for honesty.
· Be courageous and take risks to do what is best for the community. Making decisions based on results of opinion polls or the wishes of opinion leaders is not leadership; it is pandering. Real leaders take calculated risks daily, and when the stakes are high, they must be willing to risk everything (personal comfort, popularity and even the next election) for their constituents.
· Have contagious passion. Motivating others to perform will require visible and sincere passion. I am not suggesting constant cheerleading, but a leader should believe deeply in their cause demonstrate it daily.
· Be humble and kind no matter how much power he/she accumulates, how large a budget he/she oversees, and how large the contracts he/she awards. Power is intoxicating, but elected officials often forget that they are servants of the people. Forgetting this very thing leads to all kinds of missteps and bad decisions.
· Never ask staff/followers to sacrifice more than the leader is willing to give. As one of my mentors once said, “A leader should be the first one in the office in the morning and the last to leave at night.” This mentor practiced what he preached.
· Inspire staff and constituents alike to live by the highest moral and ethical standards no matter the temptations and opportunities. There is no substitute for leading by example. A leader should never tolerate unethical or immoral behavior from staff at any level.
· Be guided by what is best for their community and its residents--not contributors, business associates, relatives or personal interest. I believe this is one of the rarest traits of public officials. Far too often, they are influenced by the agendas of others who are not committed to the constituents. This goes along with having a “center” that I discussed earlier—never losing focus on core values and beliefs.
· Act upon the belief that “the greatest exercise of power is to empower others who want to do good or have been marginalized, regardless of race, ethnicity, age, religion or any other differentiator,” according to one leader I worked for. Bad leaders do the opposite to keep people under their tight control, but good leaders on every level of government encourage, develop, educate and listen to their constituents.
· Surround himself or herself with the best and brightest, most committed and most honest individuals available. Those who will carry out a leader’s vision must share his/her passion and possess the intellect and ability to perform at the highest levels. They must also have the courage to give the leader honest feedback and bad news however unpleasant those may be.
· Never accept mediocrity. In 2011, excellence is underrated, undervalued and rare in many places. A leader should feed the hunger for achievement in every undertaking.
· Be someone who unites people around solutions and positive efforts as opposed to others who thrive on using race, religion, party affiliation, geography or any number of other factors to divide constituents.
· Work to reignite hope in their communities. I am convinced that at the core of many socioeconomic problems is the lack of hope and expectation. A leader must pay special attention to this if a community is to have a bright future.
· Be tenacious and relentless in pursuit of what is best for the community. Once an important goal is identified, a leader should not accept failure or take no for an answer from stakeholders. Many leaders fall short on this point and give up too easily.
So my message to those protesting against the tyranny of corrupt, criminal dictators is simply this: Please don’t settle for any less than good leaders. No one is perfect, but all people deserve to be led with integrity, commitment, passion and compassion. Insist on those qualities at the outset and throughout the years. You, your children and future generations deserve no less.