Leading with love
Leaders should put character at the heart of decision-making
In January 2007, Wesley Autrey was waiting for New York’s subway when he saw a young man suffer a seizure and fall on the tracks in front of an oncoming train. Leaving his daughters in the care of another bystander, he jumped onto the tracks to pull the man to safety only to realise there was no time. Instead, Autrey dragged him into a drainage trench and protected the man with his own body. The train passed over both of them, “close enough to leave grease on [Autrey’s] cap,” but he and the young man lived. It’s an inspiring story, and it also reveals a deeper truth—that moments of pressure and adversity strip away all our facades and reveal who we really are, and what really drives our decisions.
Fast-forward to New Zealand in 2021, and this is an important lesson for leaders now. Leadership is a continual exercise in making judgment calls, and those judgments will be shaped not just by data or by technical skill but also by character. So how can you develop the kind of character that leads to good decisions in hard situations?
A helpful place to start is the book, The Road to Character, by journalist David Brooks. Brooks’ focus is on what he calls the “eulogy virtues,” the things that people will say about us at our funeral—not whether we were rich or ran a tight meeting, but whether we were kind or generous. These eulogy virtues sum up the kind of character we should aspire to, and Brooks illustrates them with a series of profiles.
For example, he considers US General George Marshall, who could have been the supreme commander of all Allied forces at D-Day in World War 2. As Brooks tells the story, Marshall refused to tell President Roosevelt that he wanted the command, even when the President asked him directly, saying that it didn’t matter; what mattered was what the President thought was best. The President wanted Marshall by his side and so gave the command to General Dwight Eisenhower, who commanded the troops to victory and went on to become President himself. Marshall was deeply disappointed, but also knew he had done the right thing.
It’s an approach to leadership and to life that puts others first, and that thinks of leadership as service not command. It’s hard to cultivate this approach because, as Brooks says, “we are flawed creatures.” But we are capable of it and the key, as is often the case, involves love.
CS Lewis illustrated this vividly in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where Eustace, longing after a dragon’s treasure, falls asleep on the dragon’s hoard and wakes to find that he has become a dragon. In other words, you will become most like whatever you love most. So if you want to develop humility and true character, you have to develop a desire for it; you have to want to be kind, brave, or generous more than you want to put yourself first.
Of course, love can wax and wane, and so Brooks emphasises the need to make commitments, which “simply means falling in love with something, and then building a structure of behavior around it that will carry you through when your love falters.”
We saw signs last year that in the midst of the pandemic, many Kiwi business made commitments they could be proud of. As Minister of Finance, Grant Robertson said at the time, many small business owners were “dipping into their own pockets, their own private savings,” to keep their staff’s livelihoods intact. This is a huge encouragement that when the pressure goes on, so many among us chose the kind of humility and other-centred leadership that Brooks describes.
It’s important, though, not to take this for granted. For one thing, it’s probably easier to make noble gestures when a crisis hits and in its immediate aftermath; sustaining that sacrifice and that commitment over the long haul asks different, harder questions of us.
In answering those questions, leaders should ask themselves what is truly driving them—whether it’s something we’d eulogise at a funeral, like a commitment to servant leadership, or something else. Taking that approach doesn’t mean ignoring reality or practical constraints; a government presenting a budget has to work with finite resources and make trade-offs, for example. But as we continue to grind our way out of the pandemic’s aftermath, let’s encourage leaders of all kinds to keep asking themselves: what do we truly love?
well said :)