Why The World Needs Truer Leaders (And How to Be One)
The Five Timeless Qualities of a True Leader (and Why They Matter)
Here’s a tiny question. What makes a “true” leader? Is there even such a thing? After all, that’s what too many of today’s leaders don’t seem to be: true leaders. Whether they’re political, social, or economic leaders, they just don’t seem to be The Real Thing. Though they’re schooled and trained in “authentic” and “genuine” leadership, though they’ve mastered the magical Fingerless Fist Bump, while they can recite the affirmations, memorize the talking points, and sling the zingers…somehow, they’re still about as credible, convincing, and legitimate as a three-dollar bill in the sweaty palms of a used-car salesman.
Hence, today we intuitively distrust our leaders like never before in recent history — to the point that most us is think the very word leader is synonymous with “douchebag”, and leadership with “BS”.
So how did we get here? Later, I’m going to suggest that Yesterday’s Theories of Leadership are deeply and profoundly flawed — while they might be superb at creating ruthless power-hungry bullies who’d stab their grandmas in the back for a shinier suit, those theories are less effective at creating people who lead us to lives well lived. And that is all that leaders truly are.
And yet we ourselves don’t often set the bar that high. Too often, we naively accept every manager, bureaucrat, functionary, beancounter who proclaims themselves a “leader”. Then then when they prove not to be, we profess shock, surprise, anger. But perhaps, initially, at least, in some small way, the fault is ours — for not having asked our leaders to live up to a high enough bar: a definition of the word that matters. After all, if we are going to be outraged that our leaders turn out to be mere PowerPoint jockeys, puffed-up grandees, self-important paper-pushers…then we’d better have expected better of them than soul-sucking mediocrity in the first place.
Hence, our very first challenge is dramatically raising the bar for leadership. If you accept my proposition that this is an Age of Rage, in which people are angry, outraged, furious, at…everyone else…their neighbors, peers, fellow citizens, bosses…but most of all their leaders…then the question is: how can you and I be radically better leaders…than the ones that let the world, the planet, the future, and history down today?
To develop my tiny theory of eudaimonic leadership — eudaimonia being the ancient Greek word for a life well lived, thus meaning “leaders who expand human potential to its very highest, so everyone can live a life that matters” — I’m going to begin by contrasting true leaders, the real thing, with demagogues, their opposite. That’s the simplest, easiest, and most importantly, the clearest way for us to see the difference between true leaders and those who merely make-believe at leadership.
So let’s start by defining terms. Both are subtle and rich concepts, that don’t admit simple definitions. Though we can define them with single phrases, we’re not going to learn much if we do. Let us think of them as poles of a spectrum instead. On one end, leaders. On the other, demagogues. What does the spectrum look like?
There are five key characteristics of a true leader.
True leaders are optimists, not pessimists. Leaders must be optimists. Not in the naive pop cultural sense of a very loaded and overused word — that they must constantly spout affirmations, praise, and recite verses from a daily book of inspiration. That is not what true optimism is at all, and often, it simply masks a deep pessimism.
True optimism is firm and unyielding belief in human potential. Not just your own — but in everyone’s. It is the belief that every single person in an organization, whether a society, city, company, or town, has the potential to do, create, imagine, risk, defy, build, contribute something fundamental, lasting, and beneficial to all. And further, that more than we may ever know, suppose, or foolishly believe they cannot be, people do in fact have the potential to become great — great engineers, artists, thinkers, writers, scholars, dreamers, poets, healers.
I’m going to use the words “human potential” throughout this book, so let’s clear up a few misconceptions about them. First, far from being a vague buzzword, human potential refers to sharply defined, quantifiable, and demonstrable gains in human well being. Second, there are many aspects to human potential, from happiness to health to relationships, and leaders can focus on some or all — indeed, that’s a big part of the job. Third, while I won’t go into the art of measuring human potential — that’s a topic for another book — I do want to emphasize that I don’t use the word in the casual sense, but in a formal, measurable, evidential sense.
Fourth, and biggest, there will be plenty who think that leadership is about “doing”, not “thinking” — and those people will instinctively shy away from the idea of human potential, because it seems vague. It’s not, as I’ve discussed above. But there’s a deeper issue. Leadership solely as “doing” is dubious in the first place: our leaders are experts at “doing” — but they can’t seem to do the right things. So there must be more to leadership than that. Enhancing human potential is a measurable, specific form of “doing” — in fact a much more measurable, specific, focused, and beneficial kind than the ones leaders are used to.
True leaders lead people to their better selves, not their worst selves. When we say that leaders “lead”, what do we mean? The destination they are leading people to is not in the material world. It is in the world of being. Each of us has multitudes of selves who we may become. The leader’s job is to open a door, forge a trail, mark the path, so that all who follow may become the self that is the worthiest among them. Leaders lead people to their better selves.
A true leader, one worthy of the term, makes it possible for people who are trapped in mediocre, unfulfilling lives, whose potential is stagnating, whose talents and energies are being wasted, to reach and perhaps exceed their true potential. He does not merely create a society that is an army of servants to the ultra wealthy — but a society where every life can flourish into what it was meant, at its best, to become — whether a great healer, teacher, engineer, or so on. And thus know the most happiness and meaning that it may. Thus, societies led by true leaders grow — not just materially, but emotionally, spiritually, socially, and culturally. Again, we can and should measure and demonstrate all the above, so we’re free from the empty tyranny of GDP “growth”.
The demagogue, by contrast, exploits people’s fears and anxieties. He conjures frightening monsters — and promises to protect people from them. And though he may offer protection, the price is people’s potential. Let me illustrate.
The demagogue wishes to build a Great Wall. And so society goes to work, each person constructing it furiously. But what they are not doing is become great teachers, engineers, healers, and so on. They are not doing anything of true and lasting benefit to one another. They are protecting one another from the demagogue’s imaginary monsters — but at the price of their own potential. Thus, societies led by demagogues stagnate and spiral into the abyss.
True leadership is positive sum, not zero or negative sum. Here is the central belief of a true leader. That everyone is made better off by anyone reaches their potential. Why?
Let me illustrate. May grows up dreaming of becoming a biomedical engineer who invents synthetic organs. But she is from a poor family. Never able to afford medical school, and then an engineering PhD, she resigns herself to never living up to her potential. She becomes an appified dog-walker for Steve. Steve is a tycoon who has made billions from on-demand convenience app.
Ten years later, May is still a dog-walker. Steve faces tragedy. He has found out that he has terminal liver cancer — and there isn’t a donor in the entire country that matches his profile.
Now let us consider the counterfactual: a different world with true leadership. In this world, there exists a true leader who made it possible for May to go to medical school, do an engineering PhD, and create a lab where she went on to invent synthetic livers. She began reaching her potential. Steve became a tycoon in this world, too — and went on to develop liver cancer. But here, thanks to May’s breakthrough, he lived: because it was May’s very invention that saved his life.
Do you see the difference? In the first world, Steve has a comfortable life — but only at the price of May never reaching her potential. But in the second world, May has reached her potential — and by doing so, can save Steve’s life. It is an overdramatized and simplistic example — but perhaps it makes the central point. Everyone is better off when anyone reaches their potential. We are all better off when each one of us is not merely relegated to being a butler, maid, chauffeur, low-end wage-slave — but free. To pursue their greatest and noblest dreams. Leadership is simply the art of inspiring people to, and then creating worlds where people can, realize their potential. That is what economists mean by “positive-sum”: your prosperity doesn’t subtract from mine — but benefits me.
The demagogue’s thinking is precisely the opposite. “There!”, he cries, “they are responsible for your decline, stagnation, loss! If we eliminate them, then we will be whole, true, wealthy again!”, pointing to entire ethnicities, groups, classes.
Note well and clearly the logic behind his thinking. They are subtracting from your prosperity — whomever “they” might be this decade, whether Mexicans or Muslims or Jews. And so the solution is equally obvious: eliminate, dispossess, eradicate them. That is the central axis on which the demagogue’s illogic spins. But there is no substance behind it. For in the demagogue’s world, May would never have reached her potential — she would have been busy eliminating undesirables, it’s most likely, rather than creating synthetic organs. Because the demagogue does not believe in the greatest single insight of modern economics, that prosperity is positive sum, not negative sum, he cannot unlock people’s potential. The inescapable result is that societies run by demagogues invariably stagnate, decline further, and crumble. There is not a single example in modern history of a demagogue leading a society to peace and prosperity precisely because his logic is not just fatal — it is fatuous.
True leaders enable people to realize their potential. They must never assume that people have no potential. Here is a key principle you must remember if you wish to be a leader. A leader never knows who tomorrow’s Picassos and Einsteins are, where they are found, or even how they are truly made. You may look at a poor, desperate, dumbstruck child and think: “he’ll never amount to anything!”. And that is the very moment at which you have stopped being a leader.
The simple fact is this: you don’t know, and I don’t know, and algorithms certainly don’t know who will produce tomorrow’s great breakthroughs. After all, that is what Einsteins and Picassos do: create great breakthroughs that benefit us all, which radically improve the quality of our lives, worlds, existences. But leaders do not know where to find them, or who they are — and that is just as it should be. Einstein was a famously mediocre student. Picasso was globally celebrated only after long periods of frustration. When a leader presumes to know where tomorrow’s giants of human potential are found, he has presumed too much — and though he may not know it, taken a first ginger step into the abyss of demagoguery.
For making presumptions about human potential is exactly what demagogues do. They point to certain groups of people, entire ethnicities, whole social classes, and say: “there! Those are the parasites who have taken prosperity from you!! Let us remove them, and all will be well!”. In other words, the demagogue is presuming to know the limits of people’s human potential: some people, he says, whether they are Jews or Muslims, disabled or different, will never amount to anything. They will certainly never be great healers, engineers, teachers — they will only ever be thieves, criminals, undesirables, untouchables. If a demagogue were to look at Stephen Hawking, he’d see a frail, useless man in a wheelchair. But a leader sees a great mind that has changed the world.
When demagogues presume to know that some people will never amount to anything, that some people are destined to be parasites, and so on, the next natural step is to eliminate them — for they will never amount to anything anyways. And so the demagogues sets about putting society’s resources to work at this task. Bureacracies are devised, laws are passed, secret police are organized. It is a colossal waste of human effort. But the real waste is in what happens next: the cleansing. For when a society rids itself of entire classes, groups, segments, it is also ridding itself of potential genius, greatness, breakthroughs that could have benefited all. Who knows how many Einsteins and Picassos the world has lost to the genocides and atrocities of demagogues who presumed to know people’s potential?
Because the leader can never know where tomorrow’s greatest breakthroughs can come from, he must be a benefactor of human potential. He must do precisely the opposite of cleansing a society of people he presumes will never amount to anything. He must presume that everyone in his organization, whether it is a country, a corporation, or a collective, can amount to something remarkable, extraordinary, incredible. That each and every person following him has not just some limited potential — but boundless potential that none truly know. And so he must create levers for that potential. Ways, small and large, by which that potential can be realized, whether through education, training, contacts, finance, healthcare, inspiration, encouragement, mentoring, or more.
The leader’s fundamental job is giving to all who follow them humanity’s greatest gift and truest birthright: freedom. Freedom isn’t simply five hundred flavours of toothpaste in a big-box store. True freedom is the capacity, and then the ability, to realize your potential. That is what the art of leadership is. A leader is simply someone who frees people to realize their potential, to become their highest and truest selves, the selves which may create, imagine, rebel, defy, dare, build, grow, dream, love. He is a practitioner of the highest human art: liberation.
And that is what sets a true leader apart from a demagogue. The demagogue’s black art is bondage. He uses peoples’s darkest fears, their most troubling anxieties, their most desperate nightmares, to keep them in bondage. Hence, he may rescue them from the imaginary monsters he has conjured — but they wake up to find themselves shackled. They have never been freed to become their truest and highest selves — instead, they are sentenced to sentencing others to never reach their potential. And so all who follow a demagogue waste their brief time on this earth, whether as servants or masters, becoming living destroyers of the greatest gift humanity has — the freedom to live as fully and truly as each one of us can.
So hopefully, now, with me, you’ve come to a more nuanced, sharper, and clearer understanding of what a true leader is. One that’s not about style, hype, buzz , whether or not you can do that ridiculous fingerless fist bump— but mattering, meaning, truth. The truth of human lives. That’s really what the “truth” in true leadership refers to: a leader is The Real Thing only when he or she is able to impact the deepest truths of human lives, in real terms — not merely pretend, make-believe, role-play that they have. Does a person improve, better, elevate, expand human potential? I’ll discuss in the next essays what precisely each of those means. But for now, the lesson is: all that is the first job, and greatest challenge, of a true leader.