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'Lead us not into temptation ': the overworked notion of leadership

By Miles Little - posted Monday, 18 August 2003


A leader is someone who has followers. He or she must therefore have qualities or values or ideologies that invite people to judge these qualities, values or ideologies and find them good. Leaders are therefore likely to have enemies, because some people will make hostile judgements. Leaders, in a sense, make things easy for other people. They focus attention on issues, and provide ways to deal with them. Leadership can manage change.

So far so good, but leadership is a word that is asked to do too much work. It is tossed around in many contexts, and its meaning is supposed to convey qualities that allow followers (presumably that includes most of us) to transfer responsibility to acknowledged leaders. There are times when leadership becomes an excuse for moral cowardice or stupidity - Adolf Eichmann simply did what his leaders told him to do.

Leadership can only be the prerogative of the few. If we were all leaders, there would be no one to lead. Leadership courses are supposed to reveal the secrets of leadership to more and more people. Sadly, the results seem to be measured by corporate corruption, increased avarice and a precarious moral sense that ranges from uncertainty to contempt towards ethics, principles and values.

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Leadership is conflated with power and with charisma. It is also conflated with ruthlessness. Single-mindedness and determination are admired but shade into bloody-mindedness and obstinacy.

Leadership these days often means control and ideology. A leader has simplified beliefs for all situations and seasons, a slogan for everything.

How is the word used? Here are some examples:

  1. Mr Churchill was a great war leader.
  2. Spartacus was a leader of men and armies.
  3. In theses difficult economic and political times, what the country needs is a good leader.
  4. In times of change, the company needs a good leader.
  5. The imam is a fine spiritual leader.
  6. Mother Theresa gave moral leadership by her self-sacrificing example.
  7. My indecisiveness was caused by the lack of a leader to tell me what to do.
  8. I organised the transport of Jews to extermination camps because I believed in our leaders, and that is what they told me to do.

What do these sentences imply?

Mr Churchill's greatness as a war leader is a paradigm example of the qualities of a national leader. He was judged to be brave, clear-headed, single-minded, determined, resilient. He had ideals which he articulated with famous clarity and rhetorical force. His followers knew very well where they stood, and what was expected of them. Perhaps most significantly, he was a leader who won. The value of his leadership was confirmed by success.

Spartacus, on the other hand, ultimately lost. He was a heroic failure, but still a leader who could control people, motivate them and express ideals for which they would fight. He was a hero, who might have achieved much more as a leader had been born into the right race and family. He was a "natural" leader. He must, presumably, have had charisma, rhetorical powers, physical prowess and strategic abilities of an uncommon degree.

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In difficult times… This expresses the longing we have for stability, and the faith we have that all we lack is a leader. It says that we believe that there is always a solution for human and social problems that one particular human can devise and implement. It denies that there are insoluble problems. It says things like "The effect of the drought wouldn't have been so bad if the Premier/the farmers/the water conservation authority had shown some leadership", or "AIDS in Africa wouldn't be half so bad if the governments/churches/health authorities had acted decisively and with real leadership".

In times of change… Change is like real difficulty, because it demands that we accommodate to it. As values change, as society becomes more sexually permissive, more willing to tolerate abortion, reproductive technology and genetic engineering, old values are challenged, and people again look for a mysterious quality of leadership which will somehow lead them through the change. They want the change to be smoothed, the old values to be salvaged. When abruption and disruption happen, and discomfort spreads among the community, the discomfort is blamed on lack of leadership.

Spiritual and moral leadership… Here is another face of leadership, the face of leadership without power. This is leadership which one person or a group of people establish by example. Such leaders express a spiritual or moral ideology by their knowledge and the example of their lives. Moses, Christ and Mohammed were people whose relationships with God were of a special kind, and who drew spiritual authority from the ways in which they lived in that relationship. Both Moses and Mohammed derived forms of political power from the authority they gained in their secular domains, but both began as spiritual leaders.

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About the Author

Emeritus Professor Miles Little is Director and founder of the Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine at the University of Sydney, which is a Cornerstone Member of National Forum.

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