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Jeff Rubin: As we are seeing right now, leadership and civility is needed in a time of divisiveness

Anyone who came of age in America in the late 1960s will never forget the discord, anger, and divisiveness of those times. An unpopular war in Vietnam pitted brother against brother, generation against generation, toppled politicians and led to civil disobedience, assassinations, and rioting in the streets. Cities burned, our flag was desecrated, and Americans died in defiance of the norm to change the status quo.

The swelling of anger fanned the flames of racism, sexism, and gender inequality, and ushered in the Women’s Movement, the Summer of Love, Woodstock, psychedelic drugs, and gave full voice to rock and roll. It was an era like no other and set America on a path of change unequaled in my lifetime — until now.

Without a doubt, the worsening of our coronavirus and Black Lives Matter protests have damaged our public psyche, have called into question the merits of our leadership and tested our collective resolve as individuals and as a nation.

Lest we forget, these immediate and widespread events are just the latest in a series of seemingly incomprehensible occurrences we have experienced over these past several months and recent years. Each highly emotionalized event has challenged our ability for rationale discourse, willingness to place nation above self, and called into question the morality and integrity of our leadership and citizenry.

Parallels to our past are all too real. Once again, the symbols of right, might, patriotism, flag, and the right to dissent have all been politicized. This time, however, the anger and frustration are heightened by the widespread use of social media, real time live streaming, and 24-hour news. Still, the questions remain many, answers are few, and our experience of reality changes every day.

Amid this divisiveness it might be time to ask, how do we measure leadership and what should we expect from our leaders, be they local, state, or national?

Literally hundreds of definitions have been used to describe the term “leadership” and literally thousands of books have been written on the subject. However, at the most fundamental level leadership is described as the “capacity to lead.” By that basic definition, a leader is seen as a person “who motivates, inspires and guides others toward achieving a common goal.”

A leader is further seen as “the person in the group who possesses the combination of personality and skills that make others want to follow their direction.”

A 2013 Forbes magazine survey asked some of the top people in business what they thought about leadership. Their answers might surprise you both in their brevity and in what they leave out.

Peter Drucker, author, consultant, and a leader in the development of management education, defined leadership as simply “someone who has followers.” John Maxwell, pastor and bestselling author on the subject, sees leadership as “influence – nothing more, nothing less.” On the other hand, Warren Bennis, widely regarded as a pioneer of the contemporary field of leadership studies, expressed leadership as “the capacity to translate vision into reality.” Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, envisioned good leaders in the 21st century as “those who empower others.”

Barebones to say the least, their answers would imply that leadership by itself is neutral. One can be a good leader or a bad one. Measurement lies instead within the character and skillsets of the individual, and the attributes determined to be essential in good leadership.

There are several sources we can turn to for a list of the ‘essential’ qualities of good leadership. They represent a consensus that ‘good leaders’ display honesty and integrity. Good leaders are confident, capable, and able to inspire others. They are good communicators, possess excellent decision-making skills, and are accountable for their actions. They are also humble, empathetic, resilient, transparent, have a positive attitude, and a commitment to excellence.

In a 2018 article for Balance Careers, Dan McCarthy, leadership development speaker, consultant, and executive coach laid out the qualities that distinguish a great leader from a good one.

“Great leaders have a presence. They pay attention, listen, ask great questions, and make everyone feel they are being heard and valued. They can be trusted, and they trust others. They are accountable for their actions, admit their mistakes and never point fingers or make excuses.”

“Great leaders drive great results. They are positive and confident. They can balance optimism, passion, and confidence without ignoring reality. They don’t let confidence turn into hubris. They drive change, understand the dynamics of organizational and individual change, and can cope with them. They empower others, are comfortable delegating, and they don’t hoard or abuse their power.”

On the contrary, McCarthy states that some of the attributes of a bad leader are equally as obvious.

“They micro-manage, are arrogant and aloof, criticize without foundation, communicate infrequently and ineffectively, never clarify the big picture and never work alongside subordinates.”

So, what are the most significant attributes of leadership?

Dwight. D. Eisenhower, 34th President of United States, once said that, “Integrity was unquestionably the supreme quality of leadership. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.”

Zig Ziglar, renowned motivational speaker and sales trainer, added another important component to integrity.

“With integrity, you have nothing to fear, since you have nothing to hide. With integrity, you will do the right thing, so you will have no guilt.”

Winston Churchill on the other hand saw Courage as, “the foremost of the virtues, for upon it, all others depend.”

Larry Bossidy, former CEO of Honeywell and author of the book Execution, cited humility as a third essential element.

“The more you can contain your ego,” he said, “the more realistic you are about your problems. You learn how to listen and admit that you don’t know all the answers.”

If we are to come out of this a better nation, it’s time to move beyond all the name-calling, finger-pointing, and passing of the buck that pits party against party, neighbor against neighbor, and “us” against “them.”

It’s time we move away from the lack of transparency, the cries of “fake news,” and the conveying of information meant simply to polarize, minimize, or confuse.

Honesty, integrity, courage, humility, and civility. Are these qualities too much to ask from those in leadership positions? Are they too much to ask of ourselves?

Jeff Rubin is the author of Wisdom of Age, an international advocate for positive aging, and a leader in the fight against ageism. He advises business and community leaders on inter-generational and aging issues. An advocate for “Age-friendly” and “Livable” communities, Rubin is currently working to advance these initiatives in Kentucky and elsewhere across the country.

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