What makes a good leader?

In my previous post, “What is old?” I posed the question, ‘What should we look like at a specific age?’ It never ceases to amaze me how often a topic comes up one day and just a few days later something similar is mentioned.  This is what happened when I was reading my set Bible passage for the day recently. The commentary beside the passage was headed, “What should a Leader look like?”

The commentary describes how leaders in business or politics work really hard to make themselves look like leaders. They hire spin doctors, aides, script writers, press agents and body guards so as to make themselves feel important and to give the impression that their position requires that they have all these people to assist them. This was contrasted with Jesus’ leadership which was understated and compassionate and yet he was a powerful leader. He had no army or other forms of protection and yet he exuded power and received an undeniably strong following. This has continued for more than 2000 years.

So, ‘What should a leader look like?’  Is there a specific physical appearance or manner of dress? Is there a manner of speech or a way to walk? I do not think that any of these are what make a leader, especially if we agree with Thomas Kilmann Trainers that, “We all have innate leadership abilities and a capacity to lead.” Since each of us is supposed to be unique then anything physical cannot define a leader.

If one goes to a site listing the top leaders of all time they include Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Genghis Kahn, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Napoleon Bonaparte, Abe Lincoln, George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr and, of course, Nelson Mandela. Now there is no way that any of these can be considered physically alike. They were from so many different countries and cultures and yet they all led countries and/or people with such demeanour and ability that they are still within the top 10 greatest leaders of all time.

What is interesting about the list above is that there is not one woman! This is probably because most of them lived in more patriarchical times. I am sure that if one took into account the past fifty years there must surely be at least one great female leader – Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Indira Ghandi maybe?

Some were quiet and compassionate eg Mahatma Gandhi and Abe Lincoln whereas others were true warlords, namely Genghis Khan, Napoleon Bonaparte, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and even Winston Churchill. Others were fighting for human rights within in their own countries, the best known being Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela. The main thing is that we still do not have a picture of what a good leader ‘looks like’ and I don’t believe this will ever be possible.

A leader first needs to earn respect and this starts with treating others with respect. Humility is one of the best traits a leader can have, not Uriah Heap humility but true humility which comes with not believing that you are better than those around you but encouraging and developing them to develop their own abilities. A person who is bossy and takes credit even when it is not due is not going to make a respected leader. He/she may be a leader, but more feared than respected and loved. Genghis Khan’s armies were so strong because he had no qualms about beheading or torturing them if they stepped out of line.

I believe that parents can be the best leaders any person can know. If you teach your children, from birth, to respect  and assist others, to speak up for the marginalised and to extend love to all around them, they too can be great leaders within their families and communities and beyond, if that is what they are called to do. An clear example of this is a young adult man who was so shocked at the deterioration and filth of the street where he grew up in Alexandria, near Pretoria, that he went out and bought brooms and bags and began the clean-up himself. Others soon joined him and the idea is spreading to other streets in Alexandria. His motivation was his parents who had taught him to keep his own space clean and he had noticed that his mother had always swept the street outside their home as well.

To conclude, then, there is clearly not a specific look that a person needs to be a leader but rather character and the desire to improve their own circumstances and those of their community. This attitude will always have the makings of a leader in any area of life.

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