• By Germana Barba

How Do We Redefine “Leadership”?

Ethics should guide our choice of leaders rather than seeking superpowers



All my life, I’ve always felt somewhat uncomfortable with the term “leadership”. One reason is that, as all psychological tests keep confirming, I am analytical. So, when I see “leadership”, my brain automatically thinks that it comes from “leading” which means “conducting” and “guiding”, which can be translated to “ducere” in Latin. The “Duce” was the appellation that the head of the Fascist party gave himself, who ruled Italy in the 20’s until the end of the Second World War. Not exactly thrilling! The Macmillan Thesaurus list of synonyms for “leader” showing “dictator”, “autocrat”, and “demagogue” does not make things much better.


Another reason is that a “leader” automatically requires “followers”, and unless we are talking about social media, that’s not necessarily a flattering camp to be in. There are circumstances where following orders is absolutely necessary — think of wars and armies — but I like to think that in almost any other professional situation, the closest we get to following orders would be when we follow instructions and procedures, which will have been discussed and decided democratically in advance.


There is a lot of truth to the burden weighing on those whose role makes them responsible for others. As I discuss further below, having these obligations is a huge responsibility. Nevertheless, I think that we would have a better conversation about this topic if we stopped deploying that quasi-religious emphasis that connotates the term “leader”. Without having to evoke the dangers of concentrating too much power in fewer hands, experience has taught me that every role is important, and you need people who excel at each particular position. Which, in my humble and thus not very leader-like opinion, does not make “leaders” superior to others.


What truly makes a “good leader”


In truth, my biggest reason for being a little allergic to the L-word is that only recently I have started to see opinions, books, and articles reflecting my views of how someone at the top should be like. The historic legacy model of the charismatic and over-confident male has persisted to our days, especially if one looks at the reality of the leaders we currently have. Organizational psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic gives an excellent account of this model in his book “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?”, and in this very entertaining TED talk.


Old myths die hard, so it’s no surprise that many women and the men that do not reflect this stereotype will have doubts as to whether they are “cut out to be leaders”. And that is a huge problem. In many countries around the world, the very notion of leadership is still archaically masculine but deeply ingrained in people, and even women may see this stereotype as valid (against their own interests)!


I propose, again humbly (and unleaderly), that because “leaders” have more power/control/resources and, in one way or another make decisions for others, they need to display more ethical characteristics than the average person:


- They need to bow to the honor of having the responsibility to decide what to do and make other people do it.


- They need to address this responsibility with humility and acknowledgment of their own limitations.


- They need to utilize fair and wise processes to involve experts and to hear from people with dissenting opinions.


- They should anticipate issues and setbacks and have plans for all possible scenarios.


- They need to truly look after the communities they supervise.


- They need to have the courage and the abnegation to do the right thing in difficult situations.


The list above exemplifies what I see as the competencies that specifically relate to roles of responsibility. In my view, they apply to prospective heads of governments as much as to candidate CEOs and to any other job that entails deciding for large groups of people. You may think that this is list is too ambitious, and there will never be women or men with all of these qualities. That may be true. But try this: next time you must choose someone, go through the list and think which candidate is closest. He or she may not be the one to whom your instinctive sympathy would have gone.


One more thing: in my view, a good leader should be someone that thinks that the best is yet to come. Optimism, positivity, balance, satisfaction, and moderation should be within anyone that is supposed to decide for others, if for no other reason than the devastating consequences that the lack of these characteristics can produce! I don’t want to exaggerate this, but I feel pretty strongly that personal frustrations, excessive egos, and generally speaking, overwhelming and imbalanced personalities do not make a good leader.


Another kryptonite for our “supermen”


Covid has just shaken the world. Faced with yet another global crisis, many leaders have once again shown their inadequacy. This has not been about their lack of competence in science or health management. It’s been about superficiality, arrogance, lack of proper involvement, too much attention to optics, zero humility, and no courage. It will happen again unless something dramatic changes.


Somehow, the word “leader” is not a neutral one, and may carry the seeds of some of its very issues. Qualifying the term, as several authors have done, by adding “servant”, “ethical”, “thought” has been helpful to giving it a more positive undertone. Most recently, author and personal friend Dr. Ranya Nehmeh distilled the need for adaptability in her book The Chameleon Leader.


However we choose to call it, we have a real opportunity to generate a better direction for our future and the future of our succeeding generations. We need to develop more attraction to less flashy qualities in prospective leaders and pave the way to the creation of a new paradigm, centered in ethical standards, and a serious commitment to bring positive change.


When that happens, I’ll make peace with the word “leadership”, but deep down I still wish it to be replaced by a younger, yet to be invented, successor.

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