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The Lowest Form of Leadership

Poor leadership is in abundance - it is relatively easy to master, pervasive in our society and often hard to discern. In contrast, great leadership is more difficult to master, far less common, but much easier to recognize when you are in the presence of a great leader. In this context, leadership is much like comedy - there are plenty of people trying to make you laugh - some are terrible, some make you giggle and some inspire you to share their humor for the rest of the day.

Comedy is a great corollary to leadership but it has a singular difference that helps us recognize success - great comedy provides you with a full belly laugh and fills you with joy. In comedy it is clear when a joke bombs or a line has been crossed. This singular difference is why comedy is a great teaching tool in the context of leadership.

Great leadership, like great comedy, is both difficult and risky.

As part of this discussion, let’s consider the lowest form of comedy. Imagine yourself back in middle school in the cafeteria. One of your classmates singles out a special needs child and makes a joke at their expense. As an adult you know this is awful. In the mind of a pre-teen, this joke may get a regrettable laugh. This is the lowest form of comedy - a joke that is made at another person’s expense - the easy laugh.

The mechanics of this comedy are simple: 1) identify a person, or group of people, who is/are different, 2) accentuate their differences, and 3) demean them because of that difference. Sadly, the audience for this type of joke never subsides because the process enables an unprincipled or weak-minded listener to feel better about themselves as they are lifted up by putting another person down.

A much higher form of comedy relies on inclusive humor - trends we see in all our lives and patterns we share as a collective. This higher form of comedy crosses racial boundaries, socio-economic boundaries, political parties and is universally entertaining. In all fairness, great comedy is becoming as hard to find as great leadership.

Thankfully, in the world of comedy we have a barometer that tells us when something is funny - the laugh. Everyone recognizes a cheap laugh, the guilty laugh and ideally, the genuine full-throated belly laugh.

Consider this in terms of leadership. Great leadership is inspiring. It crosses racial boundaries, socio-economic boundaries, political parties and has universal appeal. We don’t see enough of this type of leadership any more. And without the trigger of an unapologetic belly-laugh that notifies us of great comedy - we often overlook and under-appreciate great leadership.

In contrast, the lowest form of leadership is the leadership of division - It pits “us” against “them”. Leaders who take the easy path, and “go for the easy laugh”, stress how your problems are due to someone else. There is no talk of collective or individual responsibility. All dialogue is how “you are not to blame” and “they” or “them” are the reasons for your dissatisfaction or despair.

Poor leadership is lazy leadership - akin to the joke that gets an easy laugh at the expense of someone less fortunate.

One of my more formative lessons in leadership happened shortly after college as a graduate student and player/coach on the club lacrosse team for Marquette University. I learned this important lesson at a tournament where my undergraduate coach was also fielding a team. My former coach at the University of Illinois, Dick Evans, was an amazing man. He was passionate, demanding and principled in everything he did.

Our Marquette team had made it to the championship game and I was thrilled that my former coach could witness our success. Unfortunately, at halftime we were down by 7 goals and our outlook was not favorable. I decided to give a rabble rousing motivational speech to encourage our team to an unlikely victory. The content of my speech is not fit for print, but the essence consisted of a message demeaning our opponents - leadership of division.

Coach Evans approached me after the game and congratulated us on our victory. He then provided me with the best coaching I had ever received from him. He told me… “I heard your halftime speech. You are a good speaker, but I am disappointed in you. You exhibited the lowest form of leadership. You are better than that. Never do that again. A great leader can respect his opponent and still lead his team to victory."

The leadership of division is like the dark side of the force - it can be very powerful - but it is Machiavellian in nature and morally bankrupt.

Great leadership, like great comedy, is both difficult and risky. In most cases, great leaders lift everyone up and the only person they may diminish is themselves. Great leaders and great comedians are masters of self-deprecating humor and the art of elevating everyone.

Leadership is not just an act, it is also a responsibility. Great leadership inspires personal responsibility, personal accountability and the group dynamic that supports collective selflessness and morality. On the contrary, the leadership of division is like the dark side of the force - it can be very powerful - but it is Machiavellian in nature and morally bankrupt.

Travel the world, study history, pay attention to domestic politics. Poor leadership is not the purvey of any particular group, geography, culture, era or political party. Poor leadership is lazy leadership - akin to the joke that gets an easy laugh at the expense of someone less fortunate.

The easy path of leadership is the same as the easy laugh - shameful, immoral and embarassing.

America is currently exploring a range of political options that is staggering in its variety. We are craving leadership and looking for it in any form. Unfortunately, regardless of political party, we are not finding much great leadership. Most of our current options are going for the cheap, lazy and easy laugh - the politics of division. It’s sad to watch those few who are talking about “We” and “Why” struggle to get attention. It is even more disheartening watching peers reflexively respond to the lowest form of leadership.

It is important to understand that history has nothing but bad lessons in store for societies that gravitate toward poor leadership. The politics of division eventually create real societal divide and diminish personal responsibility. Ultimately, history’s graveyard is littered with great nations that succumbed to the lowest form of leadership.

As individuals, it is important that we demand great leadership and we hold those who demonstrate low standards accountable. We need to hold ourselves accountable for what we reward and ensure that we don’t succumb to the allure of the leadership of division. The easy path of leadership is the same as the easy laugh - shameful, immoral and embarrassing.

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