What differentiates a great leader from a bad one? What character traits or behaviours inspire followers and create lasting change? What kind of leadership builds a world that improves people’s lives?
I often say that the world needs a new kind of leader who shows up, takes a stand and changes the world for the better. I always say that it starts with you. But what does that leader actually look like? How do they behave? What do they believe? What actions and choices do they make?
There are countless examples of leadership around us every day. Those examples can bring people together, catalyze or inspire action towards a positive future — or they can do the opposite; pull us apart, divide us and call out our worst tendencies. With so many examples around us, what you pay attention to will influence your outlook and perspective.
I’m deep in the midst of a summer sabbatical, where my schedule is slower and I’m spending hours each day cycling, paddle-boarding and walking our new puppy. With all that newfound space in my head, I’ve been thinking deep thoughts and pondering big questions. In a world of chaos and polarization I’ve been thinking and re-thinking how we work together in communities and organizations, and the leadership the world needs now.
I’ve also been binge-watching old series. It’s not all deep thinking over here. Which brings me to Friday Night Lights. The series ended in 2011 but I’ve only just discovered it (a little late I know!). The series revolves around a high school football team and the people connected to it in a small Texas town. More than that, it is a story about the beauty of human struggle and authentic leadership. The football coach is a character named Eric Taylor, who is very human, always striving to be better and sometimes failing. He has a well-defined view of what it takes to be a good person and to live a good life. He holds closely to the things he values the most, and he works hard to live with integrity.
The series is inspired by a movie (which was inspired by a book), where Coach Taylor says this: “Being perfect is not about that scoreboard out there, it’s not about winning. It’s about you, and your relationship to your family, yourself, and your friends. Being perfect is about being able to look your friends in the eye, and know that you didn’t let them down because you told them the truth. And that truth is that you did everything you could — there wasn’t one more thing you could have done. Can you live in that moment? As best you can, with clear eyes, and love in your heart. With joy in your heart. If you can do that, then you’re perfect.”
In the series, before every game, the team declares “Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose” before they take to the field. It’s like a recipe for a good life — if you approach each moment, milestone and interaction with clear eyes, intention and purpose and a full and open heart, you can’t lose.
It seems to me that leaders start from a deeply committed place — a sense of purpose and a deep abiding love for something they hold dear.
Earlier this month an unusual hero emerged in response to hate and racism — #GreenShirtGuy Alex kack chose laughter, compassion and an open heart in response to vitriol and public anger about a petition to make Tucson, Arizona a sanctuary city.
If you haven’t seen the video of his reaction to an outburst at the Tucson City Council Meeting, it is one of the best public meeting videos of the year. Watch it here.
When interviewed by a local news station Alex Kack said this, “Why wouldn’t you laugh at this? People took time out of their day to interrupt a City Council meeting and shout the most absurd racist stuff. It’s an incredibly dark time and there is a lot of hateful rhetoric happening nationwide everywhere right now. Ultimately, I think the majority of this country, regardless of their political affiliation, understands that the loudest voices happening right now are kind of ridiculous. I think that laughter is resonating becuase I think that is how people feel right now.” He then advocated that people focus on the sanctuary city issue.
It seems that me we are all leaders just like #GreenShirtGuy , and that in every situation we have a choice — to contribute to the chaos and hate swirling in the space around us, or to choose a different way to engage.
In June of this year I read a compelling opinion piece in The Globe and Mail by columnist Dave McGinn entitled “I love you man: why do men have such a difficult time maintaining friendships?” In the piece, the author openly, honestly and vulnerably shares his challenges, struggles and heartache and his need for support and friendship. He opens the article with this; “In the fall of 2017, after nearly 15 years of marriage and two kids, my wife and I separated. It was the most painful time of my life, but those words don’t do it justice, really. We’d been together for most of my adult life; I was 25 years old when we met, 31 when we had our daughter, 34 when we had our son. Now, at the age of 40, I was alone.” It’s a heart-wrenching, vulnerable opening and it sets the tone for an article that dives deeply into the struggles many men experience in talking about their emotions.
The article explores issues of loneliness, disconnection and toxic masculinity. Towards the end of the article, Dave McGinn writes this:
“In all the time I’ve been thinking about friendship, talking to other men about the subject and interviewing academics on the topic, I learned another lesson, one I wish I had been taught years before.
I was a bad friend to my wife.
For a long time, I think, I was a great friend to her. But not for the last couple of years of our relationship.
I didn’t share with her things I was going through — things I was excited about, things I was worried about. I only talked about our kids and our jobs. I was boring and bored. I grew comfortable with the routine. She told me over and over again that she wanted spontaneity but I planned every minute of our lives. She wanted poetry; I gave her train schedules.For a long time after we broke up, I felt a confused and sometimes seething resentment because I would ask myself, “Wasn’t I a good husband?” I was. I was sure of it. I made dinner all the time, I coached our kids’ soccer teams. I tried to pick up the slack at home when she was busy with work.
A long time after our breakup, after a long time spent focusing and reconnecting with old friends and trying to make new ones, of putting a lot of effort in, I realized the question I should have been asking all along wasn’t, “Was I a good husband?” But, “Was I a good friend?”
The moment I asked myself that question, I knew that I hadn’t been. I lost the best friend I ever had because of it.
So the lesson I learned? That to be as happy as I can be, to be a better man and a better person, to be close to the people I care about most — men and women I have known for the better part of my life — to have relationships with them that are caring and understanding and fun, all the things that make this life most worth living, I need to be the kind of friend to them that I should have been to my ex-wife all along.”
The stark honesty of these passages took my breath away. Published in a national newspaper, there is no hiding from these truths. I imagine that Dave McGinn’s act of courage and honesty might inspire other men to choose the same, might compel action to address loneliness, disconnection and to choose different patterns of interaction in relationships. This article is a deep, resonant act of leadership.
It seems to me that leaders have the courage to say the things we are all afraid to say and to declare truths we may be hiding. It seems to me that vulnerability and humility in the act of serving others is inspiring, resonant and humbling and has the potential to have a positive impact on those around us.
Earlier this year I had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing Mayor Lisa Helps of the City of Victoria for an event I was holding called Gather: 5 days of Brave, Honest Conversations ONLINE. As part of the hour long interview with Mayor Helps, I asked her to share her advice for other leaders in the public arena.
In response to that question one of the things Mayor Helps said was, “Everyone tells you to armour up when you enter the public arena and to get a really thick skin. I think you need to do the opposite. I think it requires a relentlessly open heart to lead in the public arena.” She went on to talk about how you need to meet people right where they are with their emotion, anger, pain or hope, and really be there with them in order to find solutions together to the challenges you face.
It seems to me that leadership requires a deep intention to be curious, a willingness to learn from others, and a commitment to finding solutions in collaboration with others.
One of my heros on the world stage is Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand. Her approach to leadership, and her choice in response to the terrorist attacks of March 15th demonstrate a different way to lead. In an interview with the BBC, Prime Minister Ardern stated, “It takes courage and strength to be an empathetic leader. I am trying to chart a different path. That will draw critics. But I can only be true to myself and the form of leadership I believe in.”
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, in the wake of the Christchurch massacre, photographed by Kirk Hargreaves
After the March 15th massacre in Christchurch, Prime Minister Ardern took the world stage to chart a new course in how to lead in the face of hate, racism, pain and tragedy. In her speech at the National Remembrance Service she stated,
“With their memory we bear a responsibility to be the place we wish to be. A place that is diverse, welcoming, kind and compassionate. Those values represent the very best of us. But even the ugliest of viruses can exist in a place where it is not welcome. Racism exists but it is not welcome here. An assault on the religion or faith of anyone who practises is not welcome here. Violence and extremism is not welcome here. Our challenge now is to make the very best of us a daily reality because we are not immune to the virus of hate or fear of the other. We never have been. But we can be the nation that discovers the cure. So to each of us as we go from here we have work to do. But do not leave the job of combatting hate to the government alone. We each hold the power in our words, in our actions, and in our daily acts of kindness. Let that be the legacy of March 15th to be the nation we believe ourselves to be.”
With deep authenticity and a compelling call to courage and compassion Jacinda Ardern charted a path of hope, possibility and love that we might choose to walk down. She called on our common humanity to take responsibility and be accountable for the world we live in, to take action to create the society we want. I think Jacinda Ardern is a hero for our time.
It seems to me that leadership requires great courage, compassion and authenticity. It requires a call to action that pushes you out of your comfort zone and makes you accountable for your choices. Leaders take a passionate stand for what they believe in and act with integrity and commitment to make it real.
There are countless different ways to be a leader. They all require authenticity, courage, vulnerability, compassion and commitment. I started this blog with six words running through my head: Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose. It’s a manifesto of leadership, encompassing a way of being and a call to act in a few simple words.
Those six words have made me think about my story of leadership. Turns out its similar (and seven words)— Fierce courage, wide open heart, deep commitment.
What is your six word story about the leader you will be?
The world is waiting for your answer.