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Inspiring Leaders

In my previous blog entry’s comments someone posted the quote “You can’t inspire people if you are going to be uninspiring” which was attributed to Robert Reich who (as I learned after some Googling) is Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, and was Secretary of Labour in the Clinton administration.

When I first saw it I thought: “sure, I agree with that” and I still partially do, but I think the quote also disguises a deeper point which I want to expand on here.

The point is this: why do we need leaders to inspire us at all? Can’t we just be self-motivated and create our own inspirations? I certainly don’t feel the need to be inspired by anyone to do my best at work, to be creative, and to try to be the most moral person I can. In fact, anyone who does require someone else to tell them what is good and original and moral can probably never attain those attributes.

You can’t take it too far of course, because it is certain that everyone has people they admire and (maybe subconsciously) try to emulate to some extent. But these people are extremely unlikely (at least I hope) to be their seniors at work, or politicians, or business leaders. In fact I generally feel nothing but contempt for most of those.

The sort of person I admire most is the free thinker, the maverick, the person who didn’t take the easy road and who ignored convention and did their own thing. That would include people like Richard Feynman (surely the coolest geek of all time), Albert Einstein (a genius and a real character) and Steve Jobs (who I agree was often seen as a business person but was more a creative innovator and someone who ignored most conventions).

None of these individuals set out to be inspiring, or to try to be a leader. Anyone who tries to do that might fool a few ignorant, naive people or maybe influence a few followers who want to take the opportunity to advance along with them, but they won’t really inspire. Generally it’s easy to distinguish between those who are genuine and those who are exercising nothing but a farcical imitation of true leadership.

So there are two problems here: first, the people who claim to be our leaders are generally conspicuously inadequate in that role; and second, why do we need them anyway? I don’t need a leader, although I think some people possibly do (but I do hesitate to consign anyone to the group who need to be lead). None of my best work, none of my best creative achievements, and none of my most moral actions have had the least thing to do with a leader. Quite the opposite is true. I generally do my best when I deliberately do the opposite of what those who claim the mantle of leadership demand.

I suspect that without leaders some people would feel lost because they might not have the strength of character, or moral integrity, or just the simple determination to make their own choices. In that case joining a political party or a church, or working in a company with over-bearing management might be a good choice. But that has little to do with seeking an inspiring leader – it’s just finding someone who wants to lead those too lazy to think for themselves.

Reading back through this post I sound pretty arrogant, but that criticism could apply to most of my blog entries, and who cares? I just write what I think and if it sounds arrogant then that’s just unfortunate. I do my own thing and I don’t really want to just follow anyone else, except perhaps Richard Feynman!

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