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Love, Hope & Mission: From Hoop-Jumping to True Leadership

"Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply placing yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff."
~ William Deresiewicz, from Solitude and Leadership


The evening of December 2, 2004, I was on an airplane heading back from Washington, DC. In my then-current role as the City Auditor of Kansas City, Missouri, I had spent the entire day at GAO headquarters with about fifty of the leading lights in the world of federal government finance. People like Peter Peterson, a former Secretary of Treasury and of Commerce who served under several Presidents of both parties, former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volker, and former head of the Congressional Budget Office Alice Rivlin. The day had been eye opening. This entire group seemed unanimous in the opinion that the United States of America was in an unsustainable financial posture and was hurtling toward disaster. Then Comptroller General David Walker, who had convened the meeting, said “we are on a burning platform” and that this financial crisis was the greatest threat to the future of the nation – a far greater threat than even global terrorism.

I was shaken by what I had seen and heard and thought carefully about it. By the time the plane landed, I concluded that I had a professional responsibility to the people of Kansas City and a personal responsibility to my family to do what I could to help prepare for the coming storm. I convened a forum on the issue in Kansas City and involved local officials from the region and a few of the national officials who had presented information at the forum in Washington.

I was stunned by the reaction of my bosses, the Mayor and City Council of Kansas City. Rather than thanking me for alerting them to a huge problem facing the city and the nation and beginning to discuss how to cope with it, they were angry and rebuked me for bringing it up. Not only was there no recognition that the problems I saw existed, there was outright denial. My God, I thought, where is the leadership? Aren’t these people our leaders?

Leaders? Or Hoop-Jumpers?
These elected officials were not actually leaders. They merely held positions of authority. Like many people in such positions, they were skilled hoop-jumpers. They had spent years jumping through the right hoops so that eventually they landed where they were. Their motivation was the power, the rewards, the prestige and the deference that accompany positions of nominal leadership.

True leadership is the art of enabling a group of people to accomplish together what they could not achieve alone. Leadership is not about formal authority, and one does not become a true leader by having gained formal authority within the group. Neither is leadership about command and control. Formal authority and command and control are like a battery back-up system: they can be used for short periods of time in emergency situations, but cannot be depended on to provide sufficient power for effective long-run results. And when that battery system is depleted, it must be recharged from sources of real power – in other words, from sources of real leadership.

Leadership is Courage
Good people mind their own business, keep their noses clean, work hard, play by the rules and avoid conflict. Leadership requires something entirely different. Leaders take on the problems of others, challenge the system, do not avoid conflict, and are willing to risk ridicule, derision and the loss of reputation in order to overcome those problems.

Courage is fundamental to true leadership because risk and conflict are inevitable companions to significant change. This is so because existing rules create and sustain current reality, and current reality benefits specific people. New rules will require a change in power alignments – some current winners will become losers. There will be pushback, and it will take courage to withstand this pushback.

Leadership is Learned
Leadership is a learned behavior that improves over time with self-discipline. Courage, too, can be learned. Facing one’s fears – and coming out all right on the other side – makes it easier to face one’s fears the next time. A person can learn to have confidence in his judgment and to keep problems in perspective.

Leadership is not simply a matter of having charisma or charm. Having these natural qualities is a good thing, but they are not necessary or sufficient for effective leadership. Charisma in leadership is like height in basketball: it’s helpful, but lots of tall people do not play well and many short people play very well.

Leadership is Love, Hope and Mission
Most importantly, leadership is comprised of three basic elements rooted in the fundamental nature of human experience: Love, Hope and Mission. People hope that if they follow a leader, everything will be all right because he has the knowledge and skill to carry out the mission and to meet the challenges that threaten them all. Above all else, true leadership is motivated – and sustained - by love. People follow a leader because they correctly believe that, in some way, he loves them and cares about what happens to them.

To love and to be loved in all the ways that exist, and there are many, is the only source of energy to carry on in an otherwise difficult and harsh world. The web of relationships we build is everything. The world is filled with serious challenges, most of which threaten in some way those we love. These challenges can only be overcome by effective collective action, and it is here that true leadership is born.

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