An Essay on Leadership

Phil G. Busey, Sr.
Chairman & CEO
DRG and the Busey Group of Companies

Effective leadership means to inspire those you lead to follow you. Leaders act accountably, owning the responsibility for the direction set for the organization, entity, or institution through powers of a corporate, public, or elected office.

The definition of leadership is still widely debated. However, there is a distinction between being a manager and being an effective leader. Many also question whether leaders or born or made. Personally, I believe it is a little of both. Some people are born with leadership characteristics that are demonstrated at an early age, while others learn through study, situation, observation and being molded by circumstances. All of us are impacted by life experiences that shape our emotional and world views. Teddy Roosevelt believed that a true leader must weather a difficult crisis to gain the insight to lead well. We certainly can agree though that being promoted, elected or appointed to a high position does not by itself make a person a leader. Aspiring to lead is noble only if backed by the wisdom, temperament, and courage to shoulder responsibility. Above all, your most important focus should be those you lead. Leading is not about self. It is ultimately about others and working towards well intended outcomes. Character matters, and successful leaders learn from life experiences that result in humility, integrity, empathy, and courage – a moral courage that always puts others over self.

There are several different leadership styles: autocratic, direct, Laissez-faire, deferential, democratic, transactional, transformative, and charismatic. Depending on the style, outcomes can be the same. However, the morale and support of the people being led is clearly impacted by the type of leader in power.

Knowing how to influence others to follow you and invest in your vision is not only based upon what you know, but also on the best and brightest advising you. Singular decision making without considering other opinions or guiding principles can be a recipe for disaster. Moral leadership is anchored in understanding it is not “me” but “we”. It is important to not accept your decision or thought as the only or best option. Having an open mind and respecting those around you can usually lead to the best course of action – and it may not be your own. The greater good is served when a leader is willing to accept what they do not know, listening to others and letting decisions be formulated by those who are experts in their field. Then, once a tough decision is reached, a strong leader will implement the decision without putting it on the shoulders of others. In some instances, a right decision may not be popular, but an effective leader will risk self-interest to make that right decision. A tenant is also to never ask something of another you would not do yourself.

A good leader must understand the history of current challenges needing solutions. It has been said you cannot really know where you are going if you cannot understand where you have been. What worked yesterday may clearly not be applicable to today’s circumstances. This is especially true when making hard decisions during a crisis. In politics and similar positions, the best decisions for all may be unpopular and negatively impact your position or political future. Making the best decisions takes courage. Wildly unpopular at the time, President Harry Truman decided it was in the United States best interest to relieve General Douglas MacArthur, a well liked and revered war hero during the Korean War, after he continually ignored direct orders from his Commander and Chief to fall back and negotiate a ceasefire. Despite the backlash and political risk, Truman stuck by his decision. Doing the right thing with a moral compass that points true north, regardless of personal or political criticism or rebuke, are how lasting legacies are forged. Not all decisions will be right, but taking the risk is much better than not making a decision at all.

Another example of leading during a crisis was set by a great president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was elected in the third year of the Great Depression. After being elected but before taking office FDR immediately went to work. He had already formulated plans to address the grave economic crisis and determined an aggressive course for bi-partisan legislation and action. He believed in order to solve a problem a leader must develop a course of action to get plans adopted and in place. He spent the months between his election and swearing in to adopt plans and build bi-partisan bridges, and on his inaugural day insured all of his cabinet members were sworn in. He implemented a massive amount of legislation in his first one hundred days in office that included Social Security, the WPA and the National Recovery Act while also saving the American banking system through the Emergency Banking Act. Over time some things worked; others did not. He believed that you have to try what you can. If it didn’t work, try something else – but at least try. He also inspired the American people by instilling hope and purpose. He recognized the significant need to calm the nation’s fears and try to build unity. This was essential for achieving any success in overcoming daunting economic challenges. He assured the American people through masterful fireside chats, coming into their homes for the first time through radio, declaring “We are all in this together”. He helped a desperate nation overcome the fear of enduring a deep crisis. He gave them hope. When faced with a great challenge, FDR always believed the American people were up to anything placed before them if presented with a clear message of how to move forward.

Learning from life experiences are a powerful source of reflective wisdom. FDR’s leadership was fashioned from his Episcopal beliefs. Even while growing up privileged, the message of his faith encouraged assistance to all those who needed it while inspiring hope. It was a duty he took seriously. He was often accused of being a traitor to the wealthy because of the attention and care he gave toward the lower class and not just for those of privilege.

Polio, or some argue Guillain Barre’ Syndrome (GBS), challenged him with the loss of his legs. He overcame his inabilities and it helped him see the world differently. He served with strength, fearlessness, empathy and compassion. He felt a sense of duty to improve the nation and people’s lives, and in the end to preserve democracy. Leadership requires respect for the rule of law and stepping up to provide purpose while doing what is best for the greater good. During the unprecedented times being faced during his presidency, a trusted advisor warned, “Mr. President, if these plans fail you may not be re-elected.” Understanding the weight of the moment, FDR replied, “No, if these plans fail, I will be the last president.” FDR was a model of moral leadership for us all.

A tenant of moral and responsible leadership is to face the reality of any situation. It cannot be ignored. Napoleon instructed his generals to always give him the bad news first, otherwise he could not address it right away. Admiral James Stockdale survived seven years in a POW camp with a quiet and strong faith while also recognizing the blunt reality of his situation. Known now as the Stockdale Paradox, it’s the idea of hoping for the best, but acknowledging and preparing for the worst. Stockdale explained this idea as the following: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Leaders who care about the office they hold recognize they have been entrusted with responsibilities that depend on accountability. Respect is not bestowed on the person, but the office. Trust and respect of employees for an individual leader are earned. The only way to serve an organization, people or nation is to recognize and fulfill the responsibility of the trust bestowed by them to you as a leader. If that trust is destroyed, an effective leader becomes immediately ineffective.

It is necessary to act as wisely and decisively as possible. The legacy of great leaders is forged by tackling the issues before them – always with a focus on inspiring others to understand the challenge and willingly follow. People will follow if they trust and respect a leader’s vision. A leader who instills hope without sugarcoating the challenge during a crisis.

Today, we need great leadership. We must demand it. Unfortunately, in too many circumstances we have decisions diminished by political expediency. In past times of great challenge or advancement great leaders have given us a championed vision. Without this overarching mission or plan of action the organization or nation will become demoralized and fractured. Unity is critical, and compromise is a building block of our democracy. It is not a weakness to show a willingness to compromise – it actually is a sign of strength. Building bridges in any setting is important to future success.

Confusion takes place when there is a lack of vision and direction, resulting in fear and eroded hope. To overcome the current crises before us we must accept the realty we are in and work together – putting aside differences for the common good. Effective leaders take action to bring people together with a shared purpose. The actions required may be tough. In this time of COVID-19, it takes courage to mandate appropriate actions in the best interest of the public. Owning the crisis at the highest level encourages people to be active participants. Pushing accountability and responsibility down – essentially “passing the buck” – undermines moral and political authority. The absence of effective leadership results in a “fend for yourself” mentality. We must recognize proven safeguards endorsed by most healthcare specialists. We must recognize that wearing a mask is not for yourself but for your neighbor – and wearing that mask does not infringe on your constitutional rights. Case law supports the importance of using the powers of the government “for the health, welfare and safety of the people.” We are in serious times and the pillars of our democracy are being eroded without clear leadership. It is up to us to call for right action, to call for courageous and moral leadership – after all, as the people, it is our democracy to preserve. Any decision made by leaders in this great Republic, as in any organization, must be based in the understanding of the inherent values, guiding principles and sacrifices of the many who defend the moral foundations of our democracy.

There are many variables of effective leadership. It is required from small to large organizations, and most importantly, the highest levels of public office. We can and must learn by studying the styles of the greatest leaders who have come before. It is a continual process of study. Wisdom is born from experience, and a strength of character is often only forged in fire. The goal is to aspire to be a great, courageous and just leader. Remember the calling of selfless responsibility – to serve others to the best of your ability without looking for personal gain.

The study of leadership is important to influence the decisions we make as leaders. It also allows us to recognize when a leader is not fulfilling their obligations of acting for the common good. Analyzing great leaders sets the bar high so we can understand great leadership when we see it, while also working to become better leaders ourselves. The process never ends. The need for dedicated, decisive, courageous, emphatic, compassionate and inspired leaders is ongoing.

To inspire – a leader must be inspired, dedicated to principle and passionate about improving the future of the organization or people they lead.

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