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Leadership in the Hard Times

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I love history. My children believe that proves I am as boring as the color beige. It’s not that I get worked up about dates, meetings, and documents. What fascinate me are people who made a difference. Their world was one way when they entered the scene, and it is another, better way, when they exit. Some people leave their world in worse shape. Many leave it in the same condition. But true leaders leave the premises knowing they made the lives of others better.

In recent years, the role of a leader has been tarnished. Today many people seek such roles because they pay the most money, or carry the greatest prestige, or so they can prove a point about their sex, race, or sexual orientation. Because people have clutched leadership positions in order to better themselves, society has witnessed some horrific scandals. We are no longer shocked when high ranking officials fall from power due to moral or ethical failings. When self-centered people hold office, it is only a matter of time until they are seduced.

The truth about leadership is that it does not exist for the leader, but for the led. Leaders are largely unnecessary in times of peace and tranquility. In those cases, a manager will suffice. But when people face a seemingly insurmountable problem or crisis, they instinctively look for a leader. That’s the leader’s specialty: moving people from where they are to where they need to be. Leaders solve problems. They help people gain a higher view of life than self-interest.

Society’s current dilemma is not the problems it is facing, but the leaders at its disposal with which to address them. Today, selfish people are at the leadership helm of society. Politicians are more concerned about being re-elected than solving problems. Business leaders may be more focused on retirement plans than organizational health. Pastors are often driven by numerical growth rather than the spiritual growth of their members. Leaders are not being taught that leadership is a sacred trust between them and their people. As a result, self-promoting people are searching for leadership roles that cost little and pay much.

Historians love to evaluate what happened in the past (My kids would suggest they need to get a life!). One of the interesting speculations indulged in each year is evaluating American presidents. The perennial “top five” presidents in these polls are: Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and Harry Truman. What’s interesting about these people is that they all led in times of crisis. Lincoln is generally rated as the best leader, but he also led during America’s greatest crisis. Franklin Roosevelt served during the Great Depression and World War Two. Washington guided the Revolutionary army against the world’s superpower. Theodore Roosevelt fought in the Spanish American War and built the American navy into a major force. Truman led at the close of World War Two, decided to use the atomic bomb, and presided over the war in Korea. These men faced enormous decisions with no easy answers. Other presidents who have traditionally been valued highly have been Reagan, Kennedy, and Jackson. Reagan faced down Gorbachev and ended the Cold War. Kennedy stared down Khrushchev at the brink of nuclear war. Jackson was a celebrated general.

In each case, conflict and crisis enabled leaders to rise to the occasion. Of course, crises don’t compel people to become great leaders. James Buchanan preceded Lincoln. He could have addressed the problems that Abe did, but he refused. As a result, Buchanan is ranked as one of America’s worst presidents. Hoover could have tackled the Great Depression before Roosevelt. These men were given an invitation to greatness, but they failed to accept.

We live in an age desperate for leadership. Government, business, churches, families, and non profits are all facing herculean problems that only leadership can fix. If there was ever a time for your life to make a lasting contribution, it is now. Will you rise to the challenge?

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