CAERS SUBSTACK ARTICLE #26
CAERS SUBSTACK ARTICLE #26
Life is busy and complicated and none of us has the time, or ability, to manage every aspect of our lives. Of necessity we must delegate many responsibilities to others: for example, managing the utilities that service our homes, policing our streets and providing our health care.
That list also includes people in positions we refer to as ‘leadership’ roles, such as politicians. These roles usually involve levels of influence and authority that most of us do not have, and we grant this in the context of a fiduciary relationship, i.e., one based in trust.
What are the qualities we look for in our leaders? How do we determine if an individual has enough of these qualities and will utilize them well? In other words, what is the leadership model we use in our society?
Over the years it has struck me that perhaps the commonest quality among actual leaders tends to be their desire to be a leader, to be the go-to person. Leadership positions often attract certain kinds of individuals: charismatic extroverts who thrive on being centre of attention. They feel very comfortable in positions of power, and enjoy the authority and influence that the positions they crave provide. That is not automatically problematic. However, because even the meekest among us can be corrupted by power, we must realize that those most craving it might be at greatest risk for abuse of that power.
Given this universal human predisposition to abuse of power, maybe the best leader to choose is not the one who can or will do the most good, but the one who will do the least harm. That might mean opting for someone with a healthy fear of power, one flowing from of an acute awareness of the damage they can do if they do not use their authority wisely. Or a fear that they might be changed by power in a way that is not consistent with their deeply held values. Our culture has a tendency to be overawed by those exuding supreme confidence, but there can be a fine line separating calm and appropriate self-assuredness from brash, narcissistic arrogance. It is easy to be fooled by style over substance because we want desperately to believe that our leaders always have all of the right answers.
The most common model for leadership in western society is referred to as ‘The Great Man Theory’, one in which we are convinced that in a complex and complicated world there is one person (historically a man), or a small group of persons, who can lead us to the promised land. But since we are not sheep, it might be best not to be led like that.
As with expertise, each of us can learn and grow, and forfeiting all thinking and decision-making to leaders unquestioningly can be dangerous. A good leader tries to earn the respect and trust of their followers, but never expects a blind followership that fails to respect the autonomy and inherent value of each human follower. The model referred to as Transformative Leadership embodies such a philosophy in which the leader humbly encourages all followers to reach their maximal potential and contribution to the collective. There may be hierarchical skillsets within the group, but there is no hierarchy of human worth, and each member will be held appropriately accountable for their actions, including the leader.
During your life, have you generally had positive experiences with leaders? Or have you had an inkling that the common model of leadership frequently falls short of the mark? In particular, how would you rate the leadership of the authorities during the pandemic? Is there anything to learn and improve upon for the next challenge we face together as a nation?
Even though all of us likely want to live a safe and happy life, we inevitably will disagree about what exactly that looks like and how to obtain it in the context of a free society. For that reason, leaders can be quite helpful in fostering the kind of environment that helps all of us to achieve it. But they can’t do it alone, nor should we expect them to. We must do our share, and that starts with utilizing a mature and ethically justifiable model of leadership, one that both respects the challenges of leadership but demands transparent accountability as well.
That may be a tall order, but I think the pandemic has confirmed that we deserve nothing less.
J. Barry Engelhardt MD (retired) MHSc (bioethics)
CAERS Health Intake Facilitator
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