© 2024 NPR Illinois
The Capital's Community & News Service
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Illinois Issues
Archive2001-Present: Scroll Down or Use Search1975-2001: Click Here

Wanted - Leadership: A True Leader Has the Courage to Do What's Best for Society in the Long Term

Illinoisans who have led
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Our impeached past governor, Rod Blagojevich, is best-known for being a TV punch line synonymous with corruption and bad hair. As he awaits his federal trial this summer on charges he schemed to sell President Barack Obama’s old Senate seat and used his state-given power to shill for campaign donations, Blagojevich drags our state’s reputation with him from The Late Show with David Letterman to The Celebrity Apprentice.

Apparently showing that there is a limit to our embarrassment, members of the Illinois House recently voted not to use precious taxpayer funds to commission a portrait of Blagojevich to hang in the Capitol with all the other Illinois governors. The display might be more of a gubernatorial mug shot gallery as a Blagojevich likeness would occupy a spot next to that of George Ryan, who preceded Blagojevich in office and also in a widespread corruption scandal that should see Ryan released from prison on July 4, 2013.

If Blagojevich is convicted and sent to prison, Illinois would have the dubious distinction of having four of our state’s last eight governors spend time in the slammer. That .500 percentage might be enough to make the NBA playoffs, but all it earns Illinois is the ignominy of having our state pop up first during a Google search for “most crooked state.”

But you can’t blame all of Illinois’ woes on our governors. Our state has a $13 billion budget shortfall and a well-earned reputation for not paying our bills on time. We’re a deadbeat state. In an effort to curb costs, Illinois is hemorrhaging public school teachers, cutting as many as 17,000 jobs. After decades of ignoring the problem of the nation’s worst pension debt, Illinois legislators recently took one day to introduce and pass a pension-reform bill that should save us money.

That action still wasn’t enough to stop financial institutions from downgrading our state’s credit rating to a notch just above the nearly bankrupt California.

When faced with choosing between the lesser of two evils, Illinois voters sometimes elected the greater evil. We see examples of good leadership in our homes, at our jobs, in organizations to which we belong or even when rooting for the stars on our favorite sports teams. But we just can’t seem to get a handle on political leadership. We sometimes elect the wrong people, people who can’t resist the temptation of the dark side, or people who don’t have the right stuff to lead us out of the wilderness.

For years, our leaders haven’t wanted to risk their re-election prospects by raising taxes, and they didn’t want to suffer the political fallout that would come from making cuts in services. It was as if our leaders, bereft of any ideas, were just wandering around a political desert looking for a miracle. Perhaps we need a leader with some experience along those lines, maybe a modern-day Moses.

“Interesting thing about Moses, and David, and King Saul, too: None of them wanted to become a leader,” says Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, director of Ask-The-Rabbi for Chabad.org and author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. “When Moses heard that divine call to lead from a burning bush, he stood there and argued, looking for every way he could to get out of it. When Samuel appointed Saul as king, the people had to fish him out from his hiding place in the luggage room. As for King David, even while in his palace, he sang about what a lowly creature he was, unworthy of leading a nation.”

If a qualified candidate for leadership can argue with a flaming shrub sent from God, what hope do political party chairs have of wooing a top-notch candidate during the annual fish fry?

“The people who are not interested in positions of leadership are often the most qualified,” says Joseph Holt, who teaches leadership as part of his role as director for executive ethics for the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame.

Leadership is a demanding, and often thankless, gig when done correctly. If it’s not done correctly, it attracts people who are opportunists, not leaders.

“The ones who get in power are the ones most hungry for it,” Freeman says. Raising campaign funds and winning an election can be an onerous task, and some people just don’t want to do it. Others will do whatever it takes to land the job.

Much of Holt’s job is teaching leadership skills and ethics to business executives who already are in leadership positions.

“Ethics and leadership are intertwined,” says Holt, who acknowledges that hasn’t always been the case in Illinois.

Leadership is more than just keeping the boat afloat while managing to avoid impeachment and indictments.

“The positive side of ethics is not ‘Don’t embarrass us,’ but rather, ‘Engage in behavior that is a credit to us and to yourselves, that enhances our reputation and your own,’” Holt maintains. “In the context of leadership in Illinois, this would aim at the avoidance of wrongdoing and scandal as a moral minimum, and then aspire beyond that to working effectively on behalf of the people of Illinois in a manner that you will be able to look back on with justifiable pride.”

So how can we tell if a leader is a true leader, an ego-driven maniac or merely a middle manager with the chutzpah to emerge from the pack?

“There are some characteristics that are essential no matter where leadership is needed,” notes Holt, himself a student of myriad leadership studies. “The No. 1 characteristic that comes up is trustworthiness.”

Authors and researchers James Kouzes and Barry Posner, have spent 25 years conducting surveys on leadership. They have discovered the characteristics people want, admire and are willing to follow in their leaders. People want leaders who are honest, forward-looking, inspiring, competent, fair-minded, supportive, broad-minded, intelligent, straightforward, courageous, dependable, cooperative, imaginative, caring, mature, determined, ambitious, loyal, self-controlled and independent — in that order.

Honesty. It’s been a while since we’ve talked up that trait, but it used to be synonymous with Illinois in the 19th century when “Honest Abe” Lincoln became such a leader we stuck his face on a penny and the $5 bill.

“[Abraham] Lincoln’s leadership was extraordinary dealing with the things that were thrown at him,” agrees Thomas Schwartz, Illinois state historian.

Clearly driven, Lincoln always strived for higher office, but he didn’t crave power for power’s sake.

“If Lincoln had his way and didn’t have to deal with the problems of war and slavery, he probably would not be much remembered,” Schwartz says. “He was more of an administrator president than a leader president, but the war changed the whole thing. The war produced the model of the strong president we see today.”

Lincoln made the bold decisions about slavery and war, and took the political heat. While courage cracks the list of top 10 traits people admire in a leader, some politicians consider it a roadblock to re-election.

“Courage, while necessary for constructive leadership, can be career-limiting,” Holt advises. A true leader might have the courage to do what’s best for society in the long term, but voters and public opinion polls tend to focus on the short term.

“But a lack of courage is integrity- limiting, so the best leaders do what they think is right even if it’s not popular,” Holt says. “The challenge is to know when to pick your battles.”

One of the practices of exemplary leadership that Holt teaches is the concept of a “shared vision” that inspires others. Lincoln nailed that one, too.

“A leader needs to have a vision and execute it correctly but also give an explanation to the public so that they know what they are supporting. Lincoln had to build a constituency that would support a series of ideas,” Schwartz says.

Inspired by the Declaration of Independence’s promise that “all men are created equal,” Lincoln “was shaping his replies to soothe constituencies,” Schwartz says. “Timing is everything, and he was moving people slowly to his position.”

Instead of immediately taking his preferred and controversial position of freeing the slaves, Lincoln made small inroads into public opinion and gradually coaxed the people across that moral finish line, where he already was standing.

“If you really believe in something, you’re going to do everything you can to see those ideas win the day,” Schwartz says. “Lincoln wanted to be an active player.”

The best leaders don’t just talk the talk. They act.

That is one of the attributes that elevated hockey’s Jonathan Toews to captain of the Chicago Blackhawks shortly after his 20th birthday.

“You’ve got to be a hard worker,” Toews says in the locker room after a recent practice. Players respect the captain.

“They care,” Toews says, “and they need to know that you care.”

As a leader, Toews has brought his Blackhawks to the NHL playoffs and also helped lead his Canadian Olympic team to a gold medal.

“It’s something I’m kind of used to, I guess,” says Toews, the captain. “I think it’s something that happens naturally. You can’t just put a C on the sweater and make someone the leader.”

And you can’t just elect a politician and expect him or her to lead.

“I think that not all who occupy positions of leadership are in fact leaders,” Holt says. “In politics, it seems to me there is a difference between those who are truly leaders and those who are merely in positions of leadership.”

As part of his courses, Holt points to “The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership” from a book by Kouzes and Posner.

1. Be a model. “Modeling means going first, living behaviors for others to adopt. This is leading from the front.”

2. Inspire a shared vision. “People are motivated most not by fear or reward but by ideas that capture their imagination. This is not so much about having a vision but communicating it so effectively that others take it as their own.”

3. Challenge the process. “Leaders thrive on and learn from adversity and difficult situations. They are early adopters of innovation.”

4. Enable others to act. “Encouragement and exhortation is not enough. People must feel able to act and then must have the ability to put their ideas into action.” 

5. Encourage the heart. “People act best of all when they are passionate about what they are doing. Leaders unleash the enthusiasm of their followers with stories and passions of their own.”

Inspiring people with words alone just doesn’t cut it, whether the playing field is a political arena or an ice rink.

“A guy can raise his voice and lead for a moment, but the real leaders are good players,” Toews says. “You have to care about whatever it is.”

While intelligence and competence make the list of admired leadership traits, Holt says he is surprised that “wisdom” doesn’t. Wise politicians know when and how to push an issue. Smart, competent and good doesn’t always get it done. Character alone is not enough.

“You can have the heart of St. Francis of Assisi, but if you don’t know what you are doing, it doesn’t matter,” Holt says. Likewise, you can manage without a moral compass, Holt says, “but if someone’s heart is in the right place, there is a lot to make them more effective.”

Then there are those weak leaders who might start with good intentions but are easily led astray.

“It’s not only ‘Are the apples good apples or bad apples?’ but ‘Is the barrel a good barrel?’” Holt says. “When you regularly get bad apples, it’s time to ask whether there’s a problem with the barrel and not just with those individual apples. For a person to be successful we need a healthy political culture.”

The old “everybody does it,” “that’s the way it’s always been” or “anyone with a different opinion is an evil moron” isn’t healthy, so we might have some work to do to create a better environment for leaders to prosper.

There are also strong leaders who can lead people in the wrong direction, of course.

“It is a moral warning light if a leader’s decision is easily justified on the basis of his or her self-interest, but not easily justified as in the best interests of the people he or she is privileged to serve,” Holt says. “No leader is remembered for being great because of what he accomplished for himself.”

A leader’s behavior can rub off on the political culture. Holt recalls an interview with a CEO who said 15 percent of his workforce will do the right thing regardless of whether anyone is watching them, 15 percent need watching all the time, and the other 70 percent are fundamentally decent but need positive leadership.

“A leader creates a culture that supports the better instincts of the 70 percent,” Holt says. “To me, a leader is above all motivated by a vision that life can be better for everyone in the community that he or she serves, and get people to share in that vision and work to achieve it.”

Holt of Notre Dame and Rabbi Freeman both point to a passage in the book of Exodus in which Moses’ father-in-law tells him how to pick good leaders: “Moreover choose able men from all the people, such as fear God, men who are trustworthy and who hate a bribe; and place such men over the people as rulers of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens.”

“That,” Holt concludes, “would be a pretty good starting place.”


“I think that not all who occupy positions of leadership are in fact leaders. In politics, it seems to me there is a difference between those who are truly leaders and those who are merely in positions of leadership.” — Joseph Holt, University of Notre Dame

Burt Constable is a columnist for the suburban Chicago Daily Herald.

Illinois Issues, May 2010

Related Stories