weekend update: leadership edition

Since this is a leadership blog (and one of my summer projects is to rebrand it as such), today I’d like to highlight a few examples of good leadership I witnessed over the weekend.

  • Our commencement speaker at Liberty University was former President Jimmy Carter, and it was one of the best commencement addresses I’d ever heard. I love graduations with all their pomp and ceremony and familial pride, but normally I tune out during the speech. During my own college graduation, I read a book. Maybe it was because I had to hang on his every word or I would have missed what he was saying (President Carter is nearly 94 years old and speaks slowly and quietly), but I was riveted. He didn’t shy away from social issues; his whole address was about the challenges facing our world, and in that sense, it was absolutely a charge to the graduates even though he rarely referred to them directly. But unlike in many other speeches I’ve heard by politicians (including some commencement addresses), Carter didn’t propose himself or his party as the solution to these problems. Knowing that he was speaking to Christians who would understand what he meant, he proposed behaving like Jesus: treating all people as if they have value, walking in humility rather than self-promotion, speaking on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves. Although it’s been many years since he was president, Carter is still a leader, from heading up an international humanitarian organization to teaching Sunday school in his tiny hometown church. And even though I haven’t followed his career, I know from what I heard on Saturday that he’s a good leader, mainly because he’s a compassionate leader. There were tears streaming down my face (yes, it was raining, but I was also crying) when I heard him talk about the crisis of human trafficking in his home state of Georgia, not only because of the facts he cited but also because I could hear in his voice that he cared. I, too, want to be a leader who cares.
  • I can’t remember the exact quote, but I heard a good leadership statement last night on Talking Dead, when Garrett Dillahunt, the actor who plays the new Fear the Walking Dead character John Dorie, said that he likes characters who don’t feel the need to force themselves into leadership roles or to clamor for attention–who are, in fact, reluctant to lead but will do so if it’s necessary. This brought to my mind a lot of great leadership examples, from George Washington to Rick Grimes.
  • Also last night, I finally went to see Avengers: Infinity War. I have a lot of thoughts, but some of them are spoilers, so I’ll restrict myself to comments about leadership (and also to this: Captain American looks really good with that beard and longer hair. Can I get a witness?). First of all, too many leaders spoil the soup–or something like that. There were too many characters in that movie, period, and that’s a storytelling issue, but if we can suspend our disbelief for a minute and pretend it was a documentary, the more important issue is that there were too many people trying to be leaders. This concept was used for comic potential with Thor (the pirate angel!) and Starlord, and it had more serious consequences in the disagreement between Ironman and Dr. Strange. (We’re using our made-up names, as Spiderman said.) One of the ongoing themes of the Avengers movies is that it’s hard for superheroes to act like sidekicks. But sometimes success requires taking a back seat to someone we may not even like. Second, leadership sometimes requires self-sacrifice. Again, we’ve been exploring this in the Avengers movies ever since Captain America #1, but the concept finally hit critical mass in this one–it almost seemed like this was a competition going on to see who could be the most self-sacrificial. And I’ll stop there, because of spoilers. But I guess my overall point is that if we can keep these two principles in balance–being willing to lay down our lives but also being okay with being the loyal comic relief guy who doesn’t have to, or get to, do anything so dramatic–then we will be good leaders. No capes, masks, or metal suits required.
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A soft heart does not equal a soft head.

Today I want to acknowledge and dispel a common misconception about Hufflepuffs: You know, the one about this being the house for people who weren’t smart enough to get into the other houses. You can see where the stereotype comes from; after all, our common room is the only one that you don’t have to solve a riddle or even remember a password to get into. But when you look at some of our alumni, like Newt Scamander and Cedric Diggory, the suggestion that Hufflepuff is a house full of incompetents becomes ridiculous. Even badgers are traditionally thought of as canny. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that instead of emphasizing the individual possession of intelligence, Hufflepuff focuses on the wisdom of groups (loyalty) and the application of one’s gifts (perseverance). Other qualities commonly associated with Hufflepuff, such as kindness and justice, make me think of a specific type of intelligence: emotional intelligence, which I’ve written about extensively on my blog (see this post and many others–just click on the “emotional intelligence” tag). Emotional intelligence, or EQ, involves understanding oneself and others and making wise decisions based on that understanding. And I hasten to add that EQ is not an exclusively Hufflepuff property; Ravenclaw Luna Lovegood is a wonderful exemplar of it.

Let’s look at an EQ principle that applies particularly to leadership*: A soft heart does not equal a soft head. Making decisions based on empathy is popularly associated with vague thinking. In fact, most people would probably consider the phrases “making an emotional decision” and “making an illogical decision” to be synonyms. But Hufflepuff leaders (and the many EQ theorists of the past several decades, beginning with Daniel Goleman) know that both rationality and emotion can be vehicles of wisdom. (Actually, much earlier thinkers knew this too–I have a quote taped to my laptop that’s attributed to Blaise Pascal, though I can’t vouch for the accuracy because I got it from the tag of a Celestial Seasonings teabag: “We know truth, not only by reason, but also by heart.”) We also know that having empathy for the people we lead does not mean having low standards or not caring what they do. After all, both mercy and justice are Hufflepuff qualities. Holding them in tension–leaning to one side or the other as the occasion demands, but striving to remain upright in the middle–is hard work (which Hufflepuffs aren’t afraid of, right?) that is well worth the effort. In fact, those of us who serve the God of the Bible will recognize justice and mercy as two of his attributes that are frequently associated in Scripture; e.g. Psalm 85:10: “Mercy and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed.”

So we can lead with love and still be savvy, have high standards, and hold people (and ourselves) to them.  I would love to hear stories about how you or a leader you know has done this!

*I should have made it clear earlier that I’m not using “leadership” as the businessy jargon term it’s often used as. For our purposes, leadership encompasses much more than being a CEO; it could mean being a mentor, a parent, or–as I often conceive of the role–a teacher.