OP-ED

How best to choose our leaders...Hula Hoops?

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What do Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Robert E. Lee, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un have in common? While there could have been scores of individuals added to this list these folks represent some of the more salient leaders whose styles, motives and effectiveness are being questioned presently. Each has supporters. Each has detractors. Some are builders. Some are hoarders of power. Which style is best? Who is the most effective?

We throw the concept of leadership around quite a bit. Young people are exhorted to be leaders rather than followers. Being a leader sounds powerful, responsible and admirable. Most of us cry out for leadership. Unfortunately, many of us eventually complain about a great deal of what leaders do. Leadership has its benefits and shortcomings. It is a broad concept that has many dynamics. How do we pick good leaders? How do we recognize those qualities that lead to success?

Sometimes it is a preacher. Sometimes it is a woman on a bus. Sometimes it is a celebrity millionaire. Those who rise to influence others take many paths. With this said, those who gain trust and have lasting impacts (for the positive) have a few things in common.

It goes without question that there are no perfect leaders. In fact, many who have given much to the world suffered a myriad of foibles and setbacks. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and had a dubious relationship with Sally Hemings. Abraham Lincoln once considered sending Blacks to Liberia. Martin Luther King had a series of affairs. Even the great Queen Elizabeth proved less than the ‘Virgin Queen’ (she also had a few rivals heads cut off). Despite all of this these and many others are viewed on the positive side of the ledger. Why?

Most great leaders are able to connect and communicate with those who follow. They listen, yet challenge. They challenge, yet respect. They share in victory. They accept responsibility for defeat. In short, they are able to reflect and guide the will of the people.

To present we have been discussing historic and national leaders. Sometimes this can feel distant and generalized. Perhaps viewing and selecting local leaders is an area where leadership becomes paramount in our daily lives. Think of your Mayors, Council and School Committee folk. Think of your Police, Fire Chiefs, Superintendents of Schools, Faith Leaders, etc… What do you expect from them? How do they demonstrate leadership? Are they to be held at higher standards?

It is important to note that a leader’s ‘style’ must be a consideration. While General Patton might be good for combat, would his bombastic style be effective as a Kindergarten Principal? How often have we seen the Youth League Football Coach scream and yell at kids while under the delusion that this is how the Pros do it?

There is also a tendency to believe that leadership is a constant highlight reel. The fact of the matter is that the boring 90 percent of the job often entails planning, relationship building and learning more about the issues at hand. These are essential components for effective leadership. We often think that the loud and aggressive leaders are the toughest and most likely to get things done. Two plus two is four whether or not you shout out the answer. Understanding which style to use and when is a form of emotional intelligence (something all too often minimized).

I believe that we have been hypnotized into thinking that leaders are to be found and selected through a limited process. We basically expect them to conform to a system that perpetuates itself. On the political level this procedure is often cliché ridden and perfunctory. Party politics, slogans, jingoism, finger pointing and preconceived exaggerated notions all (significantly) influence outcomes.

As for our selected leaders, ones chosen from resumes, interviews and letters of recommendation along with pedigree, perpetual motion is on full display. This method, while occasionally producing a star, more often than not ensures the status quo. Who can’t get their ‘stuff’ together after years of schooling, work, and going through the interview process countless times? Why not shake things up a bit? Why not create tests for critical thinking, spontaneity and problem solving?

A number of years back I was asked to be a part of a selection committee designed to pick the Superintendent of Schools. Before agreeing I questioned whether or not the selection process might be altered a bit. After advocating that we offer candidates a hula-hoop, duct tape, 4 pencils, 6 sheets of paper, scissors, 2 crayons and a few cotton balls in order that aspirants create a machine that would propel education into the future, I was met with crickets. Then after explaining that potential Superintendents bring their inventions before the hiring committee (to explain its relevance) I received the obligatory ‘maybe next time’. Since then, my acumen regarding incoming personnel decisions has not been put to use. Apparently, creativity, communication skills, a sense of humor, adaptability, and problem solving were not considered essential at the time.

Obviously we need leaders. Obviously leadership comes in many different forms. Finally, leadership, all too often, is based on antiquated models that rely heavily on shallow or incomplete measures. How we select those who lead us is something to be taken seriously. In fact, it is also a statement on our priorities inclusive of ethics, finances, values, etc… All to often, we become frustrated with our leaders when, in fact, some of the blame has to be placed on us.

Good leadership is something to be cherished and admired. Presently, we are in a period where leadership is being challenged on the national and local level. Perhaps it is best to keep things simple when discussing the matter. Who leads to a good place vs. who leads to a bad place.

Rotary International sums up this dynamic with a simple reminder. These words reflect the organization’s motto of SERVICE ABOVE SELF.

The four-way test of the things we think, say or do.

1. Is it the TRUTH?

2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?

3. Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?

4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

There will always be opposition and different points of view. Abraham Lincoln, who saw his share of challenges, once asked “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” Outstanding leadership can create lemonade when given lemons. It can also bridge wide chasms. Whoever can do such things has a unique talent. Now if he/she can only make a machine using a hula-hoop, duct tape, 4 pencils, 6 sheets of paper, scissors, 2 crayons and a few cotton balls we will be OK. Director of the East Greenwich drug program, Bob Houghtaling is a frequent contributor to these pages.

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