The Successes of Leaders

By Ray Blunt

  Click here for the printer-friendly version of this article.

"As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. The next best, the people honour and praise. The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate ... When the best leader's work is done the people say, 'We did it ourselves!"


One of the characteristics of today’s world is that we have no lack of people who are writing books, offering seminars, hawking DVDs, and selling desk calendars and motivational pictures—all with one purpose: Success. And then there are those pithy quotes like the one above that are ubiquitous now, flying around on the internet. But this is not a recent phenomenon. From Aristotle to Lao-Tsu; from Jesus to Buddha, it seems the ancients also had their say as to what constituted a successful life or career. The writings on success seemingly respond to a built-in quality of human beings; many of us want our lives to be successful, not just ordinary. For leaders and aspiring leaders this poses a particular challenge because in many organizations, success is defined precisely as rising to a key leadership position. That is the ultimate accomplishment—the crown on the resume.


In most government organizations I would bet that if you asked who were the most successful people, the odds are that the individuals most frequently identified would be those who made the Senior Executive Service or had pinned on General’s stars. Many might mention the top political appointee. In corporations it’s the CEO. So, let’s step back from this for a bit and reflect on what is success—for a leader? How do we deal with it when it comes?  Is reaching that pinnacle of positional leadership, itself, a sufficient laurel to rest upon? It is in this quest that I posit are either dragons or golden crowns.


What Lies in Wait for You


"Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful."
              --Albert Schweitzer


When you arrive at the top rung, there are good and bad things that lie in wait and even some of the “good” things can turn bad depending on how they are handled. Think, for example, of how leadership positions are structured to provide things people typically covet to some extent.


  • They elicit higher compensation for the greater responsibilities in the job description.

  • The office is likely to be not only larger and well appointed, but commands a better view and, best of all, it is private—you can shut the door and do whatever you wish with no one looking over your shoulder in your cubicle.

  • You get to arrange other people’s schedules to fit your own rather than the other way around and when you have a meeting, people come to your office, your turf.

  • There are people whose job it is to take care of you—keep your schedule, arrange your meetings, cover for you, keep visitors and phone callers screened.

  • You have certain perks of office depending on where you are, such as special parking, a reserved dining room, a special seat at the table when there is a meeting, a title used when introducing you, etc.

  • You get to work on the “big” policy issues and mix and mingle with the players in Congress and the White House and the big industry organizations.


And, as one colleague explained his view of a successful leader when reflecting on how he had missed the boat—“They get to keep people like me waiting outside their office while they do more important things.”


On the other hand, there are situations that go with leadership positions that people generally find onerous and difficult:


  • You are in demand for far more boring meetings than before.

  • You are more visible than you have ever been and people notice what you do and even what you wear and how you speak.

  • There are expectations placed upon you that you don’t necessarily view as entirely good such as attending official functions in the evening, going to events with industry or trade organization lobbyists, and traveling to far off field offices.

  • If your organization makes a mistake, the blame ultimately lies with you.

  • You get asked to testify to Congressional committees, to answer constituent complaints, and to endlessly defend your budget to internal staff, OMB, and Appropriations Committee staff and principals.

  • You get pressured from your boss to grant political favors.

  • You flat out spend more time at the office than ever. Forget about any flextime arrangement for you.

  • Your visibility and power are such that you may find far more reason to watch your back from subtle and not so subtle organizational politics and infighting, and that is a source of both consternation and sometimes even disgust.

  • You have to supervise people, some of whom do all in their power to make your life difficult.

  • You learn that fixing what you had always vowed you would fix when you got “there” is not so easy after all.


In short, one day you may find yourself at the top rung of the ladder you set out to climb many years before and find that maybe you put the ladder up against the wrong wall.


Clearing the Field

Let’s get a few of things out of the way.


First, there is nothing inherently wrong, ethically or morally, in aspiring to lead. That well may be your gift, your calling, the best place for you to contribute. Just don’t make it an obsession or a place of failure if you don’t become a Senior Executive or a General or a CEO.


Second, success is not a position, a title or a rank. We know that, so let’s inscribe it on our foreheads and remember it, because sometimes we lose sight of this truth in the quest. I know.


Third (and this is possibly the hardest part), success looks different at age 30, at 50, and at 70. It just does. Do you believe that? Well you should. Odds are that Lao-Tsu was an old man when he wrote that the best leaders are almost invisible. I’ve been at two out of three of those points in life and am almost to the third milestone. But don’t believe me; ask some other older people what they think. Our problem is we can’t put our 70 year old head on our 30 year old shoulders just yet.


True Success in Perspective


"Try not to become a man of success but rather try to become a man of value."
            --Albert Einstein


So how do we think about success in life and work? Let me offer some food for thought that I’ve talked to many people about over the course of the last ten years. Maybe you agree or maybe not, but I hope you will at least give it some thought before you continue on your quest for the brass ring.


The first thing I have concluded is that what you read in newspapers and on the internet about leaders has a lot of distortion in it and can unconsciously lead us astray. For example, take the political campaigns that are going on during this election year. Are those that survive the slings and arrows of their fellow candidates and become the President, the Senator, or the Congressman the only ones that can claim success? In the horserace that has become political campaigning, it usually seems so. Yet, the losing candidate might still introduce key ideas that bring about positive change or inspire others to become active in serving their communities. In short, success is not simply “winning,” even if the media tends to portray it that way.


The second thing I think is important in giving success a right perspective is that your success is not about you. A paradox? Yes, it is. If you haven’t reached this conclusion yet, hopefully you will. Lao-Tsu is only partly correct in my humble opinion. I think he should have said, When the best leader's work is done the people say, "We did it together!" There is simply far more satisfaction for leaders and for team members when everyone can celebrate together what they did and know that without each other, it could not have been done. If you have ever been part of a team that pulled off a great project, you know what I’m saying. Jim Collins says in Good to Great that their team’s five years worth of research shows the best leaders are the ones that look out the window, not in the mirror when success comes. All along the way in your career, if you can begin to cultivate this perspective and really enjoy the success that the team secures, you begin to develop habits of the heart that will stand you in good stead when they pin the rank of high office on you.


The End


"I have fought the good fight, I have completed the race, I have kept the faith. "
              --The Apostle Paul


Third (and maybe this is just where I sit with a lot more years behind than ahead), what will be you epitaph? What would you want to hear people say about your life if you were present at your wake? No matter where you are in life, you can take a different turn and begin to focus on true success—what you want to endure beyond your life on earth.


I’ve done this exact exercise with a lot of different groups and by far, what people say about their own epitaph is that they want to be known as a good friend, a loving husband, a great dad, someone who cared, someone who served others. Just the imaginary projection forward in time may help us all to see what we want to endure, what is built to last after we are gone. For each of us, what lasts is what we value most and what true success is deep in our hearts.


For those who aspire to become a truly successful leader, what you may want to consider in this light is building value into the lives of others coming behind you, be they your colleagues at work or your young ones at home—or both. One of the greatest satisfactions in life is to see someone thrive and love what they are doing when you have had a hand in it as a mentor, a boss, a coach, a teacher, an example--or even as a grandpa or grandma. Growing the next generation of those who will lead into men and women who will also seek to serve rather than to be served; who look out the window and not in the mirror when success arrives; and who value the reward of being able to say we did it together--that is a place of success that will endure and will be something you will be very thankful for being a part of whether you reached the top rung or not. Whether you do or you do not, your 70 year old perspective may cause you to wonder what all the fuss was about.


"I long to accomplish great and noble tasks, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker."
                --Helen Keller






Ray Blunt currently teaches philosophy and theology to juniors and seniors at Ad Fontes Academy, a classical Christian school in Centreville, VA. He is the author of Crossed Lives, Crossed Purposes: Why Thomas Jefferson Failed and William Wilberforce Persisted in Leading an End to Slavery, an historical leadership exploration, and a contributor to The Jossey-Bass Reader on Non-Profit and Public Leadership. Ray has long served as a leadership consultant, teacher, and speaker for many government and non-profit organizations after spending 35 years in public service in the US Air Force and the US Department of Veterans Affairs as a Senior Executive. He is B.J.'s husband of 50 years and the father of two grown children, and grandfather of five aspiring servant leaders.


  Click here for the printer-friendly version of this article.