Do Character and Competence Still Matter?

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It has been a little while since a group of citizens stormed our Capitol Building. In the aftermath, I have wondered if leadership has come down to the loudest and simplest sound bite. I have asked myself if the character and competence of leaders still matters. I believe the answer is yes. In fact, I think it matters now, more than ever, and the evidence goes way back.

Perhaps to around 400 BC, when Cyrus brought an army more than a thousand miles, from Greece to Persia, in an effort to usurp his brother, Artaxerxes II. During the battle between brothers, Cyrus was slain, his generals were taken captive and then executed, leaving 10,000 soldiers unsure of their fate. Without leadership to direct and discipline, the 10,000 did something way out of the box. They chose Xenophon, a young Athenian, as their democratically elected general. Despite their disadvantages, they marched up mountains and descended into open plains, enduring harsh winter winds. They were consistently low on food, in hostile territory, with Artaxerxes’s army chasing them much of the way. Overcoming these overwhelming odds, most made it home under Xenophon’s inclusive leadership style.

In order to help your people be their best, to produce at their best, they have to know that you care about their success above your own. I am so inspired by the powerful blending of competence and character, the unique bond of effectiveness it creates, and of Xenophon’s example in the Anabasis, which imparts his exceptional strategy and leadership story. Peter Drucker has said that if you are to only read one leadership book, the Anabasis is it. Three takeaways that I cannot escape (although I’m sure there are many more than three) are as follows:

1. Lead with love, not fear

That switch from fear-based leadership to love-based leadership occurs when we move from a zero-sum mindset, “what you have, takes away from what I have” to an abundance mindset, “there’s enough to go around”. When your purpose is power, you create fear; but with love, power is fueled by common purpose. Following a “best idea wins” strategy makes what other people think, matter. When looking at what we all might gain, instead of what I might lose – when what other people want begins to matter at least as much as what I want, that’s the beginning of what it looks like to lead with love instead of fear.

2. Lead like a fiduciary, not a perfidy

A fiduciary is a person who acts on behalf of another, putting the other’s interests ahead of their own, in an effort to preserve trust and good faith. Someone behaving perfidiously acts in their own self-interest. Xenophon faced a lot of uncertainty, and he admitted as much, asking for counsel. Today, we might hear a leader with a fiduciary mindset say phrases such as, “I don’t know, let’s find out together” or “I’m sorry, I was wrong” or “I really appreciate your contribution, thank you.” Simon Sinek uses the phrase, “leaders eat last”, which is a simple reminder for the leader that others’ wants and needs should come first.

3. Lead with vision, not vanity

Xenophon was able to see what many of us often have a difficult time with – what could be accomplished. As leaders we have a choice: to act based on what is right and principled, or to act based on what is expedient in the moment. Danger comes when we lose sight on finding what creates lasting value, and instead focus on short-term manipulations and returns. Leaders must be willing to think of the long-term goals, for the good of whom they’re leading, all in serving a clear mission. In other words, when we lead with vision, we have the best chance to get our people safely home.

Each day we have to make or recommit a few simple, yet principled decisions. Will we choose love over fear? Will we choose a fiduciary mindset over perfidious behavior? Will we choose vision over vanity?


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