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Leadership in the Crucible:
By Ray Blunt
The Paradox of Character and Power
The Public Manager
A servant leader explores three “courses” essential to
learning to lead—reflective work that results in a guiding life purpose or
mission; learning from the life and experiences of mentors; and being part
of a community of practice that learns together and holds each other
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"Nearly all men can stand the test of adversity, but if you really want to test
a man's character, give him power."
Lincoln was no stranger to adversity; nearly all biographies and
illustrations concerning the greatness of Lincoln stress the many setbacks
and hardships he endured before he reached the presidency. Even then,
students of perhaps the greatest leader in our nation's history find that
he only had begun to face the opposition and severe personal and
leadership challenges of national divisions and war that plagued his life
until his untimely death. How is it then that in his own estimation, the
ultimate test of his leadership capacity--and his character--came not in
the loss of a child or the betrayal of friends; neither in the repeated
failures to be elected to office nor in the unprecedented slaughter of the
young men that he had called upon to wage war against their brothers?
Rather, it came in reaching the very goal that he had so long
sought--leadership of the nation. What a paradox. Yet this is the paradox
that ultimately tests the character of all who aspire to reach leadership
once they arrive. It is the ultimate crucible of leadership. And sadly,
from what I hear in my work, many fail that test.
Growing Future Leaders
For almost eight years now, I have been spending much of my time--the
second half of life--on the purpose of helping to grow the next generation
of public service leaders. My 35 years in government had convinced me that
the need for growing good leaders is a large, and often misunderstood,
challenge and one that is generally not well addressed in any systematic
fashion. The recent survey of human capital only underscored the
widespread beliefs that most federal employees do not trust or respect
their senior leaders. A lot of my research in these past years and
extensive interaction with both rising and current senior government
leaders only has confirmed that conclusion. But also I realized how little
I really did know eight years ago and how much there is yet to learn about
how to prepare good leaders for the task.
What I have concluded is that developing future leaders lays not in the
lack of systematic and intentional leadership development programs in
government--what is now called human capital planning or leadership
succession programs--and which does remain a gap. Rather, the larger issue
lays squarely in resolving the very paradox that Lincoln understood so
well. Developing character in leaders that will withstand the crucible of
acquired power over others--whether as a GS-13 team leader, a senior
executive, or an assistant secretary--this is the central, root issue to
address. This "character gap" remains both the most discussed and yet
least acted upon leadership challenge in public service today. How can I
say that? Simple. It is the parable of the emperor's clothes--or at least
that is the story that seems to be told most often to me.
Great Leaders—Lousy Leaders
"Aslan," said Lucy, "you're bigger."
"That is because you are older, little one,” answered he.
"Not because you are?"
"I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger."
--from Prince Caspian
in The Chronicles of Narnia
Some leaders grow in our estimation. The better we know them; the more
often we see them in tight circumstances; the higher they go in rank--we
learn what lies in their hearts and we like what we "see." For others, it
is the opposite--we begin to realize that they are without the clothes of
trusted leadership in the crucibles of work and life.
Let me elaborate on that somewhat disturbing observation by using an
illustration of something I have used with young leaders to demonstrate
why we follow others--in other words what is it most people look for in a
leader? In short, why would someone follow you? It is a simple exercise
called Great Leaders -- Lousy Leaders. Having done it now probably at
least 50 times I can almost predict the outcome. (And, by the way, "great"
and "lousy" refer to their leadership and not necessarily to the people,
Think of two people for whom you have worked. Each one asks you to come
work for him or her again--he or she is starting a new leadership job and
wants you on board the bus. If the first one were to ask, you would drop
what you are now doing in a heartbeat to go with him or her to help get
the job done. However, if the second one approached you with the same
request, you would get away from him or her--and without a second thought.
Now here is the question: What qualities do each possess that would cause
you either to follow him or her where he or she is going or to turn away
from him or her without looking back?
The learning part of this exercise is that each time I have done this with
a group of mid-career or senior leaders, and we all have stood back and
taken a look at our collective handiwork, we see a very interesting
pattern. What does it reveal? The first impression is that it demonstrates
that what experienced people look for in a leader does underscore at least
some of the current leadership competencies of which most are aware--the
Executive Core Qualifications (ECQ). The most often named are vision,
communications skill, decisiveness, and flexibility.
The Main Thing
But second, with a deeper look, what people really are looking for in
leaders falls much more into an arena that can only be referred to as
character: humility, courage (moral and personal), caring, integrity, and
perseverance, being the five themes that are identified consistently. This
is what I continue to find as to why, primarily, people follow and trust
their leaders, particularly in the crucibles of change or crisis.
Now I realize, these are not scientific findings, but, if anything, these
repeated results are far more powerful in my estimation and in the
estimation of those rising leaders with whom I work. These are the lessons
of experience. So what does it tell us? Listen in on what might be called
an "us and them" conversation that normally follows the exercise. In group
after group this is what I hear about "lousy" leaders.
- "She talks a good game, but doesn't walk it."
- "He never listens to anyone. He thinks he knows everything."
- "In two years, I've never seen him come out of his throne room to
talk to people except when there's a problem."
- "She will never accept responsibility for a screw up—especially
publicly. It's always someone else's fault unless we have a success,
then it's all her doing."
- "Things go into his office for a decision, but unless he knows his
boss agrees, it just sits on the desk for months until there's a crisis.
He just won't cross his boss even if it's the right thing to do."
- "I had hoped things would change around here, but even though our
core values look nice on the wall, they've become a bad joke around
The Myth of Achilles' Heel
For the discerning listener, these all have subtexts of the presence of
pride--that ancient human flaw of hubris that felled Achilles and brought
down Rome. If I am a good coach, my job is to ask some questions about
now. Do you think that these senior leaders always acted in these ways?
What causes these characteristics in leaders--DNA, bad parenting, or their
education? What do you think makes the "great" leaders become great and
the "lousy" leaders become lousy?
And now here is the one question hardest for many to really hear: How
about you, what will make you different or the same when you are a senior
leader? How will you avoid becoming like this and cultivate a character
that others will want to follow?
I recognize that these are hard questions and perhaps in this era of "relativised"
values and virtues they are even imponderable questions. But I am certain,
based on all I have heard from public service leaders, that they are the
most important questions to address for the development of future leaders
(and, indeed, for the future of public service itself). They are even more
critical than the kind of questions, as important and as long overdue as
they are, that now are on the agenda: personnel grade and classification
systems, executive pay compression, staffing processes, information
architecture, human capital plans, performance measures, and de-layered
structures that currently are being asked about human capital and
And they are certainly more critical questions to address for future and
present leaders than understanding how to craft a strategic plan, what the
eight steps to organization change are, or how to distinguish an outcome
from an output that are standard fare in leadership development programs.
Character and Failure
Unfortunately, the question of character is most often raised in the wake
of failure. National confidence in corporate executives has been shaken by
the Enron, Arthur Andersen, and WorldCom failures. Questions have been
raised about business ethics in disarray, as more revelations of other
companies' malfeasance emerge almost daily. Leaders in the Catholic
Church, the Episcopal Church and the United Way have had a blind eye in
moral failures on their watch that has eroded trust in the social sector
and the church. And, in the public sector the toleration of sexual
predators by their failed leaders at the Air Force Academy, the presence
of groupthink and truth suppression in both the Columbia and Challenger
disasters, and the repeated public lies by senior officials that are
associated with Vietnam, Watergate, and Monicagate--all these have
contributed to the erosion of the trust placed in public servants as
national leaders and in leaders in all sectors of the US. But these
visible failures only are the harbingers of what is seen in small ways in
many more organizations as the great-lousy exercise indicates.
Perhaps the good news is that maybe we can use this time of increased
attention to human capital to do something to better prepare tomorrow's
public service leaders than we are doing today. By placing the subject of
character and power forthrightly back on the agenda of how we develop
young people to become tomorrow's Abraham Lincoln, George Washington,
Harriet Tubman, George Marshall, and Jane Addams--to name a few who grow
larger the closer we have looked across the years--we can get our focus on
the main thing in leadership. All of these people we now revere came of
age in a time when character was founded on some core truths and was part
of the consciousness of culture beginning with teaching small children and
carrying on into public life.
©2003-04 The Public Manager .
Reproduced by GovLeaders.org with the kind consent of the publisher.