JUDGING POLITICAL LEADERSHIP
“What Makes a Good Candidate?”
This is the season when we as the public are bombarded with the appeals for various offices in which candidates tout their leadership ability. In some of these cases, the appeals come from a place of demonstrated leadership. In far too many other cases, those requesting the privilege of leading us in public office are thoroughly lacking in the elements that make good political leaders. This is true for political offices at all levels.
Over the past two decades, I have spent many hours examining the attributes of effective and capable leaders. I have looked historically at those who have demonstrated outstanding leadership in the office they were elected to as well as those who failed horribly as leaders. Unfortunately, in many cases, both the effective leaders and the failed leaders present some of the same characteristics.
My scholarly work in the area of leadership and my experience with leaders have led me to identify five (5) essential characteristics of a good leader who is aspiring political office. They are character, cosmpetence, courage, compassion, and commitment. Interestingly, these characteristics apply in almost every scenario whether in the business, political, educational, or religious arenas. A rigorous examination of any aspiring leader will very likely reveal the quality of the leadership they will provide.
As pastors and spiritual leaders, we are often called upon to advise our members, family, and friends on which candidates have the ability to be effective leaders (and which should, as such, earn our votes). More importantly, we are often asked the more general question, “What characteristics must a candidate possess to merit our support and to be effective in public office?”
As a scholar, I have had the opportunity to study political leaders and read biographies and source materials on histories of great leaders. I have also had the privilege of developing close relationships with some of the well-known leaders in our area over the past twenty (20) years.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Fortunately, many of the individuals who offer themselves for positions of leadership have, in fact, previously held power in other leadership capacities. We must ask ourselves, “How have they used that power?”
To be sure we are selecting the best candidate, we must examine their character. An examination of character is, essentially, a determination of an individual’s faithfulness, integrity and reliability. We consider people who are faithful in meeting their obligations and who are honest and truthful as having good character. Conversely, people who are determined to be dishonest, unreliable and unfaithful in meeting their obligations, we tend to consider as having bad character.
In the political context, we determine a person’s character by how they have behaved themselves in both their public and private lives. Character is the essence of leadership and it can make or break a leader. When a leader has significant character flaws, it erodes the trust in him by his constituents. Once the trust in a leader crumbles, his ability to lead effectively crumbles also. An important component of character is integrity. This means that there is not a gap between what a leaders says and what he does. Those who are seeking political office and requesting our votes and support should be people of impeccable character. This should be a non-negotiable.
Former Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton have been examined as political leaders on the basis of their character. Although both men served as president of the United States, their legacies are not the accomplishments achieved during their administrations but rather the scandals left behind by their character deficiencies that followed them throughout their presidency and beyond.
A rigorous evaluation of an individual’s ability to lead in a political milieu requires us to look beyond character. We know many people in our lives who have exceptional character. That is to say they are honest, truthful and faithful in all of their dealings. The question becomes, for a particular position or office, “Does this person possess the requisite competence to lead?” Competence is primarily a matter of ability, intellect and experience. These variables will determine a person’s ability to address issues as they arise in the most effective possible manner.
There are many people who may possess exceptional character but who lack competence based upon inexperience, lack of intellectual development, or unfamiliarity with the issues that they face. There is little solace to those who are harmed by well-intentioned leaders with good character, but who simply do not know what they are doing. Thus, the first question we must ask is, “Whether a person has the requisite character?” The second must be, “Is this person competent to do the job?”
Competence alone cannot make a leader, but it can undo one. Competence is characterized by both knowledge and skills. In the political arena this does not mean that a leader knows everything or how to do everything but it means he know what to do and how to get it done. Leadership expert John Maxwell states, “Highly competent people always go the extra mile. For them, good enough is never enough.” Competent leaders never settle for mediocrity and half done tasks; they constantly strive for excellence and completion of responsibilities.
The third element of an effective leader is courage. Maya Angelou said that, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage you cannot practice any of the other virtues consistently.” It does not matter if you have the character to understand right from wrong and the competence to make the right decision for your followers if you lack the courage to do so.
Courage is simply the ability to do something that you know is difficult or dangerous, in spite of the dangers or difficulties. Courage is a necessary trait of effective leadership. Courage, like all values, develops and grows with practice. It takes courage to go against the grain, break from the norm, make tough decisions, challenge the status quo, admit when you are wrong, and stay true to your values and convictions in the face of contrary winds.
Our society recognizes the value of courage by honoring people who, in the face of danger to themselves, make difficult choices to help or benefit others. In 1957, John F. Kennedy, won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, Profiles in Courage. The book chronicles eight (8) U. S. Senators who took courageous stands, and in most cases, paid high personal prices for their service to their country and the Senate. In each Senator’s situation, the common thread is the quality of courage that each manifested in choosing to do the right thing in the face of the potential (or actual) loss of political power, influence, or reputation as a consequence of doing the right thing.
Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather fear that has said its prayers. It is the inner strength and resolve to go forward even when fear presents a clear and present danger. In many ways, the greatest challenge to a leader in a democracy is to do the right thing when it is the unpopular thing to do. For that, courage is an essential trait for a good leader in a democracy.
Another essential trait by which we should measure a good leader is demonstrated compassion. Effective leaders must care for those that they lead, from the least to the greatest. A good leader is one who is compassionate towards others. They have the power of empathizing with all people and seek to know and understand the issues affecting them. However, on the other hand, uncompassionate leaders do not empathize with their people, but instead make decisions based on what they want, what is popular or what is good for them.
Most leaders are trained to lead with their head and not their heart. However, compassionate leaders lead with their heart as well as with their head. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States is a perfect example of leading with his heart as well as his head. He is revered as one of our greatest leaders because of his deep compassion for all people. In the depths of the Great Depression, he felt the pain of the hungry, the anxiety of the unemployed, the disillusionment of the displaced, and being deeply moved with compassion, he devised programs to better their lot in life.
The final trait that a good leader must possess is commitment. Commitment is the act of binding, engaging and dedicating oneself (emotionally or intellectually) to a particular cause, idea or activity. The world has known absolutely zero great leaders who lacked commitment. A leader who lacks commitment is someone walking down an endless and meandering road that leads to nowhere. Authur Gordon summed up commitment best when he said, “Nothing is easier than saying words. Nothing is harder than living them day after day.” Leaders must be committed to being in the fray day after day.
The reality is that many leaders fail due to a lack of dedication to the principles that they say they stand for. In order to determine a person’s level of commitment, we need simply examine things that they have done or said or principles that they have stood for in the past and how they have adhered to those things or principles. In making our examination we must be mindful of everyone’s need to evolve to meet changing circumstances. However, real commitment is having non-negotiable core stances, values, principles, and having the strength and tenacity to stand by them undeterred by social and political pressure.
A lack of commitment by a leader weakens his leadership and eventually kills it. No leader can last very long in the political arena without commitment. Commitment is one of those intangibles that you cannot teach a leader; he either has it or he doesn’t have it. When commitment exists, you can see it in the leader’s eyes, actions, and in everything he says and does.
It is difficult to discern an individual’s capacity to lead by applying only the principles herein discussed. Ultimately, we must rely on being led by the unction of Almighty God. James 1:5 says, “If any of you lack wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” When all is said and done, and we have assessed an individual’s character, competence, courage, compassion and commitment, we need to ask God for wisdom as to whether any particular person merits our support.