On leadership: “…we all fall down”? Thankfully not.
“Everything rises and falls with leadership…” is part of a relatively familiar quote by John Maxwell, a leader who I respect, in his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.
Because this quip is so powerful as it stands, this is where most people stop, failing to read the next part of the quote:
“… but knowing how to lead is only half the battle.”
Thankfully Maxwell clarifies and qualifies the quote because we should all have serious problems with the abbreviated version. The saving grace for us is that not everything rises and falls with leadership because it doesn’t capture a more critical reality:
If everything hung on the leader and their inferred or semi-realistic omnipotence, the smallest flaw or limitation of the leader would, indeed, follow the course of the old “Ring-a-ring of roses” song: we would ALL fall down as the leader fell (or falls) from grace.
This is an especially important idea to explore at this point in our world: at no other time have vitriolic and vocal putative leaders been able to sling hurtful and harmful rhetoric on such a massive scale. For example, the dehumanization and belittling language that is coming from a single leader, often slurring others as ‘human scum’ as well as a whole host of other phrases designed specifically to tear others down (while supposedly building himself up), is undeniably impacting the world in extremely negative ways.
Thankfully, his and the ultimate impotence of all leaders resides in our collective power.
Maxwell’s more complete maxim
To better understand and appreciate Maxwell’s quote, as well as to begin to unpack the complexities of leadership, we need to hear more of it as well as contextualize it in our broader understanding.
Thus, the more complete version:
“Everything rises and falls with leadership but knowing how to lead is only half the battle. Understanding leadership and actually leading are two different activities.”
We are now starting to see a bit more that the first part of the quote is necessary, but insufficient, to more fully understand leading and what differentiates someone who is ‘in charge’ of something but who might not represent essential/true leadership.
Power, titles & experience ≠ Leadership
Maxwell’s more complete description of leadership and leading begins to unpack the tenuous link between the propagated image of leadership and how many supposed ‘leaders’ use it for their temporary advantage, and what leadership is really all about.
Leading is not necessarily about pomp, charisma, confidence, power, hierarchical strategies or dominance. For sure, these can be indicators of the lack of authentic leadership. No, not every charismatic or brash leader is an impostor, but some clearly are. Certainty, boldness and confidence can mask uncertainty and fear.
A more holistic look at a leader is, thus, needed before we should judge them as leadership worthy. Intimately detailing things like generosity, listening, relationship building, taking responsibility for actions and outcomes, creating a culture of security, servanthood, and an unending desire to continuing developing oneself regardless of how long one has been leading all are included in the longer list of Maxwell’s 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader.
While the list of attributes of what leadership should include is helpful, a list of what leadership is NOT is, perhaps, as powerful. This may not be commonly done because the list could be quite lengthy. I’ll only contribute a few to the mix here to keep it short, because hopefully these will prompt a bit of action… Why a desire for action? Without it, all our hopes and dreams, all our grand intentions and strengths, and all our potential abilities to create a better world will remain unrealized; especially in the face of psuedo-leadership.
What leadership ain’t…
First, leadership is not a solitary endeavor. It is a dyadic relationship, always involving at least TWO parties. One is the leader and the other or others aren’t, but they are absolutely as vital.
The relationship was captured by the rather colorful Ohio Senator, John Boehner, who summarized what the ancients alluded to on the topic:
“A leader without followers is simply a man taking a walk.”
Maxwell has his own version which basically states the same:
“He who thinks he leads, but has no followers, is only taking a walk.”
Thus, leaders are but one part of the equation when we discuss the realities of leadership. What is not captured in the short quotes is the absolute power of the followers: without them, the leader does not exist.
The power of leadership, then, is NOT in the hands of the leader — it is in the followers. When a leader fails to embody true leadership or to act in the best interests of the followers, the followers are not at the mercy of the leader, they are not unable to alter the course of the activities, the relationship or the future.
Yet, if they fail to act, especially when the leader is compromised…we all fall down. The worst thing, then, is for the followers to abdicate their power by abdicating their responsibility to step up by stepping in.
Next, leadership is not about emboldening or empowering the leader, it is about creating a safe, encouraging and growth-enriching, inspiring culture for everyone to thrive. When a leader focuses on themselves, uses language that aggrandizes or memorializes themselves, even when they are in the negative by belittling others (such as the use of the term “Never Trumpers” being used nauseatingly often by the very subject of the term), they are explicitly showing a lack of true leadership.
The best of leaders are nearly invisible in that they exist as a catalyst or ethereal energetic support system that allows others to self-manage, self-actualize and self-discover. Lao Tzu’s insight into this has, unfortunately, not echoed across time in that leadership is often seen as all about the leader.
A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves. Lao Tzu
Finally, leading is not about doing, especially doing for others what they can do for themselves. Extensions of this are that if a supposed leader finds themself complaining that there “isn’t anyone else willing to step up and do a job” so they have to ‘do it themself,’ or that they are the only one to do the job because they are the best or most experienced to do it (or are, supposedly, a stable genius that is the only source of sound decision making), they are absolutely NOT a leader. They’re a self-made victim, are selfish or scared, because there are likely dozens of willing and better equipped people with as much desire to step into the very activity they’re whining about.
The true leader lets them by getting themself, and their fragile ego, out of the way.
Final reflections: What is the magic sauce of true leadership? And are our leaders using it?
Rounding out the example of using Maxwell as a lens on leadership, he explains that the key to transforming ourselves from people who understand leadership on a superficial level to people who truly lead is character.
What does this really mean?
As quoted by Maxwell, Jim Rohn states:
Character is a quality that embodies many important traits such as integrity, courage, perseverance, confidence, and wisdom. Unlike your fingerprints that you were born with and can’t change, character is something that you create within yourself and must take responsibility for changing.
To me the link to Maxwell’s writing on character above and the quote by Rohn are a poignant reminder that we need to ensure we don’t misrepresent something as multifaceted as leadership and leading by oversimplifications or overcomplications.
For example, Maxwell focuses on ‘who we are on in the inside,’ which we know is THE place to start…but it ain’t the end. Rohn uses the term ‘confidence’ after mentioning courage — courage is by far more important as confidence, ego, cockiness and insecurity bleed all too easily into one another. In both cases, an additional point might help. Occam’s razor is the key: there is a balance to be found and many leaders and followers are yet to find it.
Balance: Enter in The Buddha and Gandhi
Interestingly, Maxwell and other current public leaders have been less forthcoming in their opinions on the matter, joining many other secular and religious leaders who have stayed surprisingly quiet. Perhaps he has said more concerns and/or criticisms than I’m aware of, but I’ve found only a single instance where he links the lapses of leadership with what appears to be the actions of some of the more vocal, and destructive, leaders. Using the US political environment as an example, Maxwell glosses over what others consider severe abuses of leadership power by sheepishly stating:
“The level of leadership I’m talking about right now is an inward change,” he said. “This isn’t party-affiliated; I’m not shooting arrows at Donald Trump, although he needs this lesson desperately. A sense of humility allows us to become aware. You show me a person who lacks humility, I’ll show you a person who lacks awareness.”
This happened at an event called the “CEOs Hall of Fame” and from what I gathered there seemed to be little open discussions about the lack of current leadership that is rampant in business, politics, religion and nearly every other sector of life.
Fascinating to me is that searching Maxwell’s own website for the keyword “Trump” yields 4 hits: two of them appear to not be related to the president, but two clearly do but do not call him out:
“The Law of Empowerment says that only secure leaders give power to others… As Rick Warren teaches, a humble leader doesn’t deny his strengths; he’s simply honest about his limitations. Humble leaders feel no need to trumpet their status, are unthreatened by criticism, and revel in the accomplishments of others. They put their pride aside so that others have room to shine.”
Certainly sounds like an appropriate example… as does this:
“Early in their careers, young leaders tend to be concerned with self-advancement. They ask: what can others do for me? They spend the bulk of their time trying to get other people interested in their ideas and abilities. To this end, they trumpet their accomplishments and show off their knowledge. In short, they try to win others over by being impressive.
As they mature, leaders begin to understand that they will go farther by focusing first on the advancement of others.”
Again, certainly sounds familiar, despite Trump supposedly having a rather lengthy career?
Maxwell can’t be expected to keep up with all responses to his blogs, for sure, but he did have a chance to address another person’s reticence of calling Trump a leader in the following exchange from Maxwell’s blog “You can’t lead if you can’t stick around: Developing longevity as a leader”. Instead, someone attempted to answer what I’d believe would be a similar response from Maxwell himself:
This was from 2018 and before Trump began ratcheting up his verbal attacks on others (and they were already at unacceptable levels years before that). The “…challenge is not to judge him…” as Jason suggests is a striking example of a cop-out to me because we can, do and must judge every action of a leader as well as those of own personal lives.
So many are currently unwilling to confront a leader who continually attacks adversaries with language that dehumanizes them… We should all question why? Why remain silent in the face of unquestionable lapses of leadership? Fear would be an understandable reason but would only be valid if we believe we’re alone?
Returning to Boehner, at least he has voiced some outward discomfort with some of the toxic and very leader-like behaviors — https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/john-boehner-squirms-as-cnn-asks-him-three-times-if-trumps-tweets-were-racist. Again, a rather sheepish response to what could have been a wonderful growth moment.
Yet, this is where the power of the followers seems to be drying up, losing their cleansing ability. Many are choosing to be voiceless, either ‘turning the other cheek’ or embracing the ‘it’s only locker room talk’ stance, or, worse, completely altering past beliefs about what constitutes acceptable behavior to accept alternative narratives that support destructive ones.
I agree that we should start with love and forgiveness, yet never to the point of burying our heads in the sand and not acting in the face of what most consider is harmful actions. As has already been reflected upon:
And never, ever, stop acting when action is needed.
“However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act on upon them?” Buddha
We should never embrace the same toxic actions of any leader that initiates a follower-led response. We should, perhaps, create our own version of the Salt March, the Salt Satyagraha (“truth-force”) in India in 1930. Nonviolent protests, but protests nonetheless, against the injustices brought to life by the words of misguided leaders — words that evoke similar toxic actions of their misguided advocates?
We are all entitled sovereignty and self-rule like the type India pursued with Gandhi’s help against Britain.
This time, is it our self-directed future free of vitriol, hate and any misdirected leadership that thwarts the wonderful human potential we all have?