The true test of leadership is not found in clever social media messages badgering political opponents or in the clever conveyance of caustic one-liners before banks of television cameras, nor is leadership found in fiery rhetoric from passionate speeches, delivered in front of adoring audiences. The real test for any leader is discoverable in the questions the leader asks in quiet moments of personal reflection. Faced with momentous decisions with sweeping consequences, the true leader asks, “What is best for the people I lead?”
Setting personal interest aside to contemplate the greater good is the essence of leadership. Far too many leaders today are obsessed with a different question, “What is best for me?” Transcending self-interest is simply what we should expect from leaders in business, government and local communities. Selfless, servant leadership is what is needed in the nation.
In the wake of a violent attack by bad actors that turned deadly inside the United States Capitol, few elected officials on both sides of the political aisle have shown true leadership. Many have been obsessed with the “What is best for me?” question rather than the “What is best for the country?” question.
I spoke to a colleague in Washington who said, “We can’t even get members of Congress to come together and light a candle on the steps of the Capitol to honor those who died. Everyone is too worried about losing social media followers, supporters and voters if they are seen even standing next to someone from ‘the other side’ at a vigil.”
That is not what is best for the country. If we cannot come together to light a candle, the United States of America will cease to be a beacon of freedom to the world and our shining city on the hill will go dark.
Two years ago this month, the Deseret News hosted an event in Washington, D.C., on integrity and trust. As part of that event I interviewed legendary Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame.
Mr. Woodward spent years frustrated with the answers he received from President Gerald Ford about the closing chapters of the Watergate scandal. Woodward was convinced for more than 25 years that the pardon then-President Ford granted Richard Nixon was the final act of corruption and collusion. Surely Ford had made a deal with Nixon — a pardon for the presidency. Yet, Woodward’s reporter instincts caused him to feel that Ford wasn’t telling the whole story. He was right.
After meeting with Ford regularly over a period of months, Woodward asked the former president one more time why he had pardoned Nixon. Ford responded, “Why do you keep asking me that?” Woodward replied, “Because I don’t think you have really answered the question.”
The aging Gerald Ford then laid out how he had completely rejected any thought of gaining the presidency in exchange for a pardon. He wasn’t about to buy-in to that historically bad bargain of selling his soul for power. Instead, Ford described his internal thought process of assessing the state of the nation. The country was exhausted and filled with distrust toward the government. Ford recognized that if Nixon were jailed and tried it would lead to several more years of conspiracy theories, angst, anger and frustration. He feared that the important work of the country would remain undone and the distraction of such a trial would further fracture the nation.
Woodward noted to me that his view of Ford flipped 180 degrees that day. He saw Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon not as corruption, but as the ultimate act of courage and selflessness.
Ford asked himself the right question. He didn’t ask, “What is best for me?” Instead, he asked, “What is best for the country?” He seemed to recognize in a very real way the need for the nation to move forward. Ford also knew such a decision would be the worst thing for his own political power. He was absolutely correct; it was good for the country and bad for him. Ford’s popularity plummeted from 71% down to 49% almost overnight and he lost the presidency to Jimmy Carter.
Most historians, regardless of political persuasion, agree that Ford’s ending the long night of darkness for the country was the best thing for the country.
As a country we continue to be plagued by palace intrigue, scandals, political back-stabbing and partisan power struggles. If only elected officials would ask, “What is best for the country?” or “What is best for my constituents?” Leaders asking such questions would make better decisions and discover that the answer to these questions leads to better leadership.
As we near the beginning of a new administration we should focus on the important work of the country. We must refuse to let the most important work, that work of healing hearts and homes, remain undone and reject any political distractions that would further fracture the nation.
I would add that the question of “what is best for …” isn’t reserved solely for powerful leaders and prominent public figures. Citizens should consider the question a little closer to home, even in their homes. “What is best for my clients or customers?” “What is best for my employees?” “What is best for my community?” “What is best for my family?” “What is best for my spouse?”
The nation is in need of greater leadership at every level. Congressional meeting rooms, corporate boardrooms, school rooms and living rooms should all be places for selfless leadership to be shown.
Rather than buying into the popular mantra of “only the selfish survive,” or “What is best for me?” leaders in the home, workplace and government must have the courage to ask, “What is best for the people I lead?” and then demonstrate true leadership by acting on the response.