“Great Leadership” requires “Great Leaders”
I was asked recently to write an article on “Great Leaders”, and what makes them “Great”? To analyze the question, I made a quick list of who I thought were great leaders. The list ranged from historical figures to business titans. After I compiled the names of those history had deemed great, I began to compile a list of characteristics that I thought each should have. The usual words began to appear: honest, persuasive, confident, respectful, focused, integrity, compassion, humility, genuine, collaborative, positive, and effective communication skills. The words that I associated with a bad leader were: egotistical, no empathy or sympathy, close minded, quick to blame, lack of responsibility, inconsistent, controlling, unrealistic, and greedy. Now with the list in hand I began to ascribe to each leader the characteristics I thought they had. As each word hit the paper, I hoped to see a pattern of repeated occurrence, which would help me sketch what made them great. If certain characteristics appeared, or did not appear, in all of them, that would give me a pretty clear indication what contributed to being great leaders. This would help me spot those specific characteristics in todays and tomorrows leaders and help me better choose my leaders. I was almost done, and what caught my eye, all the leaders on the list had most of the good qualities and few of what would be considered bad qualities. History had already formulated my opinion on what would be and not be long before I began the experiment. Was it than true, when put to the test, men only become great leaders when needed.
I pondered the question, looked over the list, and found in our worst of times, a “great” leader emerged. My eyes were drawn to our forefathers, and I wondered were they “great” because of the times, or were they great because of their characteristics? While writing this, I grabbed my phone and typed in our forefathers, and up came the sites. I opened the first site and there they were, picture after picture, each with their white wigs, colonial suits, all possessing a sort of regal presence not seen in our leaders today. Had these men set out to change the world, not conquer it, but change it? To bring to the world something different, something new, something challenging, something that defies nature, a country built on freedom and self-rule. Could a nation, built on the “other”, a melting pot of men and women of all different religions, nationalities, moral beliefs, and opinions succeed? To a world ruled by great kings and queens and religious leaders, our experiment was doomed to fail. Ridiculous was the notion a bunch of farmers could run a country. It would only be time before the greed and stench of this ridiculous experiment would destroy itself. Common men cannot rule themselves, they need the steady hand of kings or bishops, one of us a “great leader”. Yet, our forefathers, certainly must have known, making such a dangerous and foolish decision would inevitably lead to conflict and war with the “Great British Empire”. To succeed, they would need to defeat the strongest country in the world. The British Empire, accustom to war, controlling many areas of the world. They had great resources, a large army, and “Great Generals”. They were certainly battle tested. I am sure our forefathers recognized what perils they confronted, and knew they were facing likely defeat. Staring at each other and wondering, who among them, would rise to be the great leader they so desperately needed, if they were to have any chance at victory. The thought must have been racing through their minds, as they pushed forward, rather than retreating to the safety of tyranny. Even if they won, what would happen next? Who among them had the ability to construct and implement the frame work for an entire country?
I stopped for a minute and thought about the ramifications had they lost. Looking at my list, many leaders now labeled as “bad” leaders had led men into battle and watched as they died. The thought must have been running through their minds. How many innocent men, women, and children could die. How many families would be destroyed. If this ended in defeat, and the British won, what would happen to all of them? Surely the king would have no mercy for the traitors they would be labeled.
Could it be, that’s what makes “great” leaders, simply they win? After all, it is not the beginning of the story that matters so much, but how the story ends, that decides who is great and who is not. Is this the defining characteristic that history puts on them? I paused for a minute and thought about this. While pondering my answer, I listened to a few minutes of news playing on TV. All the political ranker that was going on, a nation that seems so divided today, a nation riddled with problems. A nation of men and women who yell and fight, constantly tossing verbal attacks at each other, a nation that had become cynical. Political parties that seemed more interested in preserving their power and control than advancing democracy. Leaders seemingly void of any real leadership qualities. Leaders who accused each other of corruption, abusive of power, over reach on an hourly basis. Leaders that constantly attack the institutions and the very document that made us who we are. Certainly, they did not appear to be great leaders. A government filled with strife, anxiety, and suspicion was doomed to fail. It seemed it was no longer if we would fail, but becoming increasingly clear it was when would we fail? Could we not see what was happening, had Benjamin Franklin’s warning, fallen on deaf ears? When asked what they had given us, Franklin responded, “a Republic, if you can keep it”. It is hear my emotions caught me, as I wrote the words they stung my heart, and rolled over me like a wave of sorrow, had we failed them? Had we failed our fathers, had we doomed their names to a list of “bad” leaders? As I wiped a tear from my eye, I looked over at their pictures, my eyes moved from one to another. I wondered if they were here today, what would they say? Would they recognize America? Was this what had become of all their hopes and dreams? All they had sacrificed and struggled, their hopes and dreams for a better life just wasted away. Had we become a battered country, weary and shaking, its foundation wobbling, and the pillars leaning, under attack from all sides, as if the next good gust of wind would just topple it all? Shocked and speechless, disappointment in their eyes, would they hang their heads low and slowly fade into the darkness of history?
I heard a soft faint voice inside my head, history, my son, is far from over; the last chapter far from written. And as if all at once, they smiled at me, with a sincere look, and a devilish grin a father might give to his son, their faces shining bright, a twinkle in their eye; as if speaking to me. Then I heard it, we are not great men, but men just like you, men just like all of you. The illusion that history has added, one of greatness, is just that, an illusion. In that moment I realized I could not make a list of words that describe great leaders. I had to remove the fog of history, that clouded my eyes, and look closer at the men themselves.
Of the 55 men who worked diligently on the constitution nine were born outside the country. Four of them were bachelors, while the rest had wives and families. All hailing from various parts of the world and many moving from state to state in search of jobs to support their families. Often working on two separate careers at a time. One had fifteen children from two separate wives, nine had been married more than once, and Washington “the Father of our Country” had no biological children of his own. Most were under the age of 40 when they began this journey, Hamilton was 21, Burr 20, Morris 24, Franklin 70 and Whitmore 81 to name a few. Their wealth varied greatly. Some were wealthy while some had just enough money to make their way to the constitutional convention. Most were of modest means or average income. Some had college degrees from schools in America, a few had degrees form European Universities, and a few had been apprentices. No more than 38 of the 55 would attend any one of the meetings on any given day. They had been elected not because of wealth, but out of a willingness to serve. Most of the delegates lived in rural areas and, almost all of them, had held some sort of political office. The meetings would last for hours, arguing, fighting, disagreeing, yelling and screaming at each other. Pointing fingers and always suspicious of the other. Anxious to return home to their wives and children, who patiently waited for their safe return. Wondering the entire time how on earth they got themselves into this. Pondering and debating issue after issue, some they agreed on and others they strongly disagreed on. Slavery was certainly one of them. Some felt it should not be allowed, some insisted it had to be allowed, some swayed back and forth. Rhode Island didn’t send delegates, they simply were too suspicious of the motives of the other delegates. The ratification controversy of 1787-1788 claimed, “I smell a rat”. Compromise would eventually lead to our constitution. Today we talk about compromise but seem to do little of it. Our forefathers compromised and conspired at the same time, knowing full well they could amend and change the constitution later once they could gain some control over the government. The conversations at night, I’m sure included how the day went, how much had been accomplished, and how much still needed to be done. Working to make alliances each could count on, to correct any disastrous decision that possibly had been made. I think we often lose sight of this important fact, while our forefathers were constructing the constitution, conspiring for change had already begun. Often, we here today how this one or that one is attacking and undermining our government. We’ve heard it repeatedly, and I’ve heard it my entire life, this president does not respect the constitution. How much can the institutions take? I don’t have any idea how much they can take, but attacks began the moment the documents were signed. The power struggle for control had already begun.
Sure, we can stop here and call our forefathers great men and great leaders, but I think there’s something else that truly sets them apart. What I see very different about them, what really gave us a fighting chance, something very rarely done, if ever, by men of power; they wrote a document not only to protect us from the government, but also from ourselves. Built into the system, with all the suspicions they had about each other, all the misgivings, all the mistrust, were many checks and balances. This truly is remarkable, they saw their own shortcomings, and designed a system protected against themselves. They saw how corrupt all men can become, and despite their mistrust of each other, they still believed in all of us. They believed in something that moved man’s soul, so greatly, regardless how poor he was, educated he was, no matter what land’s he hailed from, no matter what language he spoke, men of no common connection; if given the taste of freedom and a chance to make his own way, he would never yield to tyranny again. He would realize his liberty could not be bought for all the gold in the world. See America is not built on a foundation, it is not built on pillars, it’s not built on norms, and it is built on liberty. It is built on a common thread that binds all of us together, one that defies all forms of science; and one we cannot see. We are all adopted children of those brave men.
How or why it works I am not quite sure, but here’s what I think. That day, the day they signed the document, a seed was planted. Thomas Jefferson would refer to it as the tree of liberty. As any farmer would know, a seedling would need to be protected and nurtured. Guarded against the wind, but not sheltered. For the tree to grow tall, its roots would have to grow deep into America’s soil. To help it along its journey, they devised a document, our constitution to protect it from its future children. The constitution would be the trees stakes and anchors, to help protect it from strong storms that were destined to arise, long before the roots and tree would be ready to stand alone. Our forefathers knew tree roots dig deep when wind pushes up against its trunk, rattling the limbs and blowing the leaves. They hoped it would see many calm days, basking in the glory of the sun. A mild breeze softly rustling its leaves but prepared for stormy days that surely awaited it. They understood the destructive power the storms that lay ahead could unleash upon it. Understanding it would be battered and beaten, its branches hung low, but never uprooted. Growing stronger with each passing day. There is something truly amazing about this tree, one of a kind if you will. As it soaked up nutrients from America’s soil, had its thirst quenched from the cool morning dew, it bellowed oxygen into the air. The oxygen was different, it had a transforming affect on men and women alike. No matter rich or poor, young or old, if you made to its shores and took that first deep breath of freedom, you knew you were home. I can only imagine, how my great grandfather, a scared nine-year-old boy, who had spent many dangerous days at sea, hungry, afraid, penniless, and only speaking Italian, must have felt as he approached her shores. As he took that first step off the boat, the sun shining bright, his heart pounding, and taking that first breath of freedom. As he exhaled, a calm sigh of relief coming over him, and at that very moment knowing, he was home. Like all, who had come before him, and would come long after him, now adopted forever, as brothers and sisters bound together by that breath of freedom. Understanding it was not a gift to be taken for granted, but something to be cherished and protected, at all costs. Knowing when your brothers and sisters call upon you to defend the mighty tree of freedom, without any hesitation, you would give your last dying breathe to defend it. That breathe of freedom transforms us and puts the American spirit, the spirit of our forefathers, into each one of us. What our forefathers saw, was not greatness in themselves, but the greatness that was in each one of us. They knew when called upon, just as they had done, every one of us would rise, as all great leaders do. Freedom beats in the heart of every American and runs deep in our veins. In what often seems our darkest hour, as the storm winds relentlessly batter the tree, shaking and wobbly, the limbs rattling, the tree does not fear for it knows its roots are deep and spread across all our great land. Knowing each and every one of us will defend it for all eternity.
If they could see us today, they would be proud parents I’m sure. Giggling at their children quarreling over matters of state, pushing against the norms. Always suspicious of government, and relentlessly fighting and pushing back against tyranny. Our momentum forward sometimes brisk and sometime stalled, but never static. You may ask what makes me think all this, in these chaotic times, the mere fact you asked the question shows the passion and care we have for our country. We still mobilize, and we march, we yell, we scream, we fight and bicker, and we point fingers with great suspicions at each other. Carrying on the tradition they passed on to us, never standing idly by, and never relenting our freedom. Joanne B. Freeman, historian at Yale, whose expertise is in the political culture of the revolution, documented the opposing views of the Founding Fathers as they worked to construct a new framework for governance. I could not tell if she was writing about politics today or then, and that is what makes us different, “Regional distrust, personal animosity, accusation, suspicion, implication, and denouncement. This was the tenor of national politics from the outset”. Their fighting spirit not only lives on in us, but as in our parents, flows through our veins. For greatness is not something that resides in a few, but in all of us.
So, my fellow brothers and sisters, may you rest your weary and battered souls tonight, for tomorrow brings yet another new storm, and as all great leaders of this nation, we will rise together to continue the battle our forefathers began so long ago, and ensure tyranny never prevails over liberty.
Craig S. Gilbert Jr., your brother