We Need Great, Courageous Leaders

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By Nell Edgington

I’ve been thinking about leadership a lot lately. Well, to be honest, I am often thinking about leadership. I’m perpetually fascinated by it in all of its forms — the good, the bad, the ugly. In particular, lately I’ve been mulling on Nancy Koehn’s definition of leadership. She spoke at this Spring’s Center for Effective Philanthropy conference on what history can teach us about leadership. And what she discussed has really stayed with me.

For Koehn, leadership is not something inherent in any one person, rather leaders are created when they face a critical event and make a conscious decision to step up to the plate: “Leaders make themselves capable of doing extraordinary things…A true leader has to decide to embrace the cause and get in the game.”

I completely agree. Leaders are not born, they are made. And a leader is made when she or he decides to stand up and do the hard, right thing.

It is, at its essence, a purely selfless act. Leadership is not easy. In fact, it is often difficult, uncomfortable, unpopular. But the true leader, as opposed to the blind follower, makes a decision to step up. Steven Pressfield calls this distinction between the true leader and the blind follower the “amateur versus the professional mindset.” The “amateur” takes the easy path and expects someone else to get them what they need, but the “professional” understands that they must step up and do the hard, right thing. The “professional” says: “I will expect no opportunity and no remuneration until I have first created value for someone else.”

I believe that our country is in the midst of a leadership crisis. No matter your political beliefs, our democracy is facing a critical event. Those we have elected to represent us are faced with a decision about whether they will step up and defend the equal power of our three branches of government or whether they will not. As Max Boot wrote on Twitter:

And as always, history provides an analog. As American Revolutionary Thomas Paine wrote: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

These are definitely interesting times. Only history will tell where we will land. As Robert Kennedy said in a speech in 1966, interesting times demand something from us:

“The temptation [is] to follow the easy and familiar path of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who have the privilege of an education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us…Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind. And everyone here will ultimately be judged — will ultimately judge himself — on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society.”

Now is the time for true leaders to emerge. And it is not just a moment for our political leaders to step up. Every single one of us must take a hard look at ourselves and ask whether we have the courage, the fortitude to lead us forward.

Because in this moment in our history, as Nancy Koehn put it, “We need great, courageous leaders like we need oxygen and water.”

Photo Credit: Winston Churchill on V-E day, IWM Collections.

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