Leading the Way: Humanity as a leadership skill

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True leaders recognize their own humanity. They possess unwavering commitment to doing the right thing, and with sincere humility are willing to do the work of others and lead by example.

While walking across the University of Iowa campus, I noticed an empty fast-food cup lying on the ground and wondered how many students saw this trash, not bothering to pick it up? It’s not their mess, so why should they bother?

For that matter, why should I? There is no financial, physical or material recognition for picking up someone else’s mess.

Parents know this all too well.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve littered, and in the course of my lifetime I’ve made many poor decisions that, if viewed as a headline, might be unsettling. I’m human.

It’s not for me to determine if my legacy will be that of a “true leader,” but I can start by unselfishly doing the work I expect of others. I picked up that cup and threw it away.

Our world is full of perceived great “leaders” who, as the result of human nature (hubris?), have fallen from their iconic pedestals. I’m talking about leaders whose influences have greater impacts and consequences than picking up or neglecting another person’s trash.

Consider Lance Armstrong, Gen. David Petraeus, former Wall Street billionaire Bernie Madoff and, closer-to-home, Nancy Sebring, the former Superintendent of Des Moines public schools. These “leaders” had far-reaching social, charitable, financial and professional impacts on individuals and organizations.

But they failed to hold themselves accountable to fundamental moral and ethical standards that most of us try to adhere to on a day-to-day basis.

It’s ironic when these “leaders” and others like them can boast amazing (dare I suggest enviable?) accomplishments, yet fail to give deference to their own humanity and fallibility.

Optimistically speaking, I believe most people are inherently good. But if these disgraced individuals are any example, then it’s fair to suggest that leadership and success breed a certain vulnerability to behaviors more sinister and corrupt.

How many times have fallen icons left you scratching your head wondering, ‘What were they thinking’? How could they have been so stupid? How could they ignore the devastation their behaviors could leave in their wake?

No self-righteous justification, driveling contrition or lame apologies can repair and recoup the damage their “leadership” has done.

In the late 1990s I worked at Dell Computer and was amazed to learn that Michael Dell worked out of cubicle. Granted, his was a more secure “cube” than most, and slightly larger, but it definitely wasn’t an oak-lined office with Persian rugs and leather chairs.

As a leader, Michael Dell was humble, approachable and human in a way often neglected once power, money, public attention and media adoration become pervasive.

Decision-making, inspirational speeches, winning performances and getting results are parts of leadership, yes. But perhaps more important is a leader’s honest sense of humility and integrity.

True leaders temper their human vulnerabilities, treat others as they would like to be treated, lead by example, and are true to themselves.

So ask yourself, what kind of leader are you? And what will your legacy be from the actions you take and examples you set?

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