What makes a good leader?
Dr. Stephen Hansen asked us that question this week at our “Forging America” event at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. We have been focusing our dialogue on Abraham Lincoln, slavery and the effects of the Civil War on America.
I have been excited for Civil War Camp for weeks. I brought lots of water, cool clothing, sunblock and paper. I want to soak up all the history and dialogue I can as these days will fly by like seconds.
The event is funded as part of a federal grant through the National Endowment for the Humanities. Over 550 applications were received for two, one-week workshops and 40 teachers were selected from throughout the United States for each session—after an intense screening process. In addition, the grant also funded the trip for three international educators, as well.
We had sat through some six hours of dialogue about Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, mythology, legends, heroes, culture, politics and ideas when the question was tossed out onto the proverbial table.
At once, like dutiful students, we made a list of those we deemed good leaders: Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Harry Truman, Ghandi, Margaret Thatcher and Susan B. Anthony….(He stopped us before we could go further.)
Then, we began to list the criteria of traits for a good leader: dynamic, inspirational, visionary, articulate, do-ers, passionate, patient, tenacious, determined, confident, transcendent, principled, selfless, uplifting, positive impact, lucky and I added “unflinching” to my own list on my notes.
Dr. Hansen, a former dean and provost at the university, made reference to a famous quote by Napoleon Bonaparte who was reading a file on a soldier being considered for a promotion. Reportedly, Bonaparte, the famed French military leader, said: “He is good, but is he lucky?” Bonaparte was known to have placed a high value on luck and timing or destiny, if you will.
Good leaders have authority, impact and power over people at certain times in their lives.
He said there are limitations on that power and good leaders need to remember those limits. They should not take advantage of them, unless they believe in the premise of the end justifying the means. Dr. Hansen also said leadership is all about trust, timing and following something through. He indicated a good thermometer for leadership focuses on good leaders doing the right things when people are and aren’t looking. They also need to use their powers and skills in the right way for positive outcomes.
We are still debating the question about what makes a good leader and the follow up piece he tossed at us about whether or not Abraham Lincoln was a good leader. We are up here in Abraham Lincoln-Land and I almost expected a bolt of lightning to jolt out of the sky as we bantered about that question.
We know how much he cared about our nation. We know he managed to preserve the Union in the wake of great turmoil, upheaval, brutality and change. But he also managed to violate the United States Constitution 100 different ways from Sunday. He chose the country over the sacred aspects of our foundational document.
Since his life was scattered with great loss, depression and ultimately, his own assassination, I would hardly call him lucky. He sent at least one person into exile and declared Martial Law on several occasions in order to circumvent certain protocols and processes. He also censured/censored the press to keep tight controls on the information the public would receive.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m struggling with the concept that he may have had a few flaws. I have long been an Abraham Lincoln fan and found myself making excuses for everyone of these tiny transgressions. But, if I do that for Honest Abe, shouldn’t I do it for John McCarthy and Richard Nixon? Who gets to scoot in under the radar? I’m not sure where we draw the line.
But I do know that after reading several books and articles, listening to today’s speakers and pondering the questions I want to ask my own students, as Americans we manage to give up something every time we get a little scared. We sacrifice our freedoms in the name of security. I think it might be time we dug in our heels and held fast to those rights our founding fathers thought it was so important for us to have. I think it’s time we ponder the qualities we think a good leader should have. Don’t you?
(Kim McCully-Mobley is a local historian, writer, storyteller, educator who is currently glad she is not wearing a Blue or Gray wool uniform in the 100-degree heat of Southern Illinois State University. She is the owner of Spirit Publishing, a small, family-based company designed to promote the history, culture, traditions and stories of the Ozarks region. To contact her, email email@example.com or call 417-229-2094.)