In an essay about the 2000 presidential election, David Foster Wallace wondered why so many potential voters, especially younger ones, seemed so “uninterested in politics.” He concluded that, more than anything else, younger people found politics boring and disheartening. They were bored by talking heads who seemed to say nothing that mattered. They were cynical about people who talked about public service but seemed to be in it for themselves. They were disappointed, because there were looking for genuine leaders and all they were finding were opportunists.
Wallace ventured this description of authentic leadership:
A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own. It’s a mysterious quality, hard to define, but we always know it when we see it, even as kids . . . . Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, how you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you wouldn’t be able to be if there weren’t this person you respected and believed in and wanted to please . . . . In other words, a real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own [Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. New York: Back Bay Books, 2006, pp. 224-225].
I think Wallace was right. Real leaders help us “to do better, harder things” than we are likely to do on our own. In my view, real leaders reflect the light of insight and radiate the warmth of mercy. They’re characterized by authenticity, humility, and urgency. They have the ability to discern the sometimes subtle intersections of the divine with the world, to see how the holy hides in plain sight, and to hear how wonder whispers in experience. Real leaders embody hope; they lean forward, in the direction of possibility. They have a tender and tenacious concern for people, and they combine compassion and wisdom, offering truth tempered with love and love strengthened by truth.
Leadership is hard to define and describe, but we know it when we experience it. It serves to move us from apathy to engagement, from indifference to involvement, and from settling for the status-quo to reaching for new realities. Leadership is not a style and not a method, though it inevitably involves both. It is, instead, a spirit and commitment: a servant spirit and a devotion to the growth of others. And, thankfully, real leaders don’t have to have positions of leadership, only a passion for renewal and a willingness to risk.