Leadership’s lost edge?

Leadership’s lost edge?

Most things are learnt partly by theory, somewhat by practice and much by example. Leadership is mostly understood by action. My first examples of leadership were during WWII when I saw the filmed results of conflict on the battlefield, the actual physical destruction of life and property at home by air raid and the heroism of great men and women struggling with loss, deprivation, hunger and sickness. Even at the tender age of seven, when the war started, I had to show some tiny examples of leadership to help our family through the trauma and I am now very grateful that I had those little early lessons. They proved invaluable.

What we read about past great leaders is mostly their stature in the face of resistance. Florence Nightingale, Edith Cavell, Horatio Nelson, Napoleon Bonaparte, Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa of Calcutta were all seen as ‘sound’, ‘solid’ people whose common feature was strategically conceived action. They were not universally successful, they were not always ‘nice’, they all had human peccadilloes. Their determination, which they showed in gutsy actions, never left them. Like Mother T, they all ‘jumped over the wall’.

Great leaders are admired, though not always in their own time. Real courage is often so close to foolhardiness that it smudges the reflection in the mirror. Great leadership lost people their jobs, their lives, their loved ones and their fortunes. That is because it involves risk of failure, risk of contempt, risk to body and risk to soul. Leadership is always risky. Not winning doesn’t make you a failed leader, just an unlucky one. Nelson Mandela’s story was no less leadership because he spent twenty-seven years in prison.

What can you do to become a good leader?

It sounds rather simplistic but to know what is the right thing to do is the foundation of good leadership. I do not mean the correct thing, I mean the morally or commonsensibly right thing. That evolves from a developed conscience. Not a pure, pristinely moral conscience, certainly not always perfect behavior, but a practical moral view whose intention is the welfare of others. Megalomaniacs and narcissists are never great leaders even when their achievements are significant. Micromanagers are the epitome of bad leaders. They trust nobody and so clutter their lives with trivia that they miss the strategic moment and wander off down a path of nit-picking improvements that lead them over a precipice.

An example of great leadership took place on 21st October 1966. There was the worst coal mine related disaster in British history when a coal tip cascaded on top of a school. 144 people died of whom 116 were children. Several other people and I happened to be having lunch that day with Lord Alf Robens, Coal Board Chairman. The news started to come in before we sat down to eat. Lord Robens asked each of us whether we thought he should go to the scene or wait until the rescue attempt was abandoned and had become recovery.

Our unanimous suggestion to him was to wait and not disrupt the rescue. His arrival in a helicopter that afternoon would undoubtedly be a major distraction since some of the key people involved in seeking anyone left alive would be drawn away to pay attention to him. He told us that he agreed with our views and he would not immediately disturb the site – but he added that it would lose him his job. Which it did. The media classified him as callous – as bad a misjudgment as I had ever seen them make at the time.

Alf Robens lost his job but he never lost the admiration of those who had been with him when he made the decision to put helping others’ lives ahead of how he would be perceived. Perhaps more importantly, he never lost his self-worth. Humble leaders need self-worth.

We need excellent leaders now more than ever before. The issues facing humanity are truly profound. Only wise people will handle them well.

Do we have enough of that sort of moral wisdom?

If not, where could we get it from?

What is your opinion, please?

Good morning

John Bittleston

We would love to hear your views at mentors@terrificmentors.com 

It’s a pretty serious question

26 August 2023