Can we distinguish leaders from mere power-holders?

The crisis of leadership today is the mediocrity or irresponsibility of many of our men in power. If we know all too well about our leaders, we know far too little about real leadership. We fail to grasp the essence of leadership that is relevant in our society and hence we cannot even agree on the standards by which to define it. Our confusion is, who leads whom from where to where, and why? How do leaders lead followers without being wholly led by followers? If an elected representative points his accusing fingers back at some gullible public for accepting money during an election, doesn’t that show that he’s just another weakling who can’t lead the people to do the right thing? Is he not supposed to show the right way if he is a true leader?  

I fear that today we are paying a heavy political price for our preoccupation with power. By viewing politics as a mere power, we are blinding ourselves to the role of leadership in politics. Many of us have come to equate power-holding with leadership. This iswrong! Strictly speaking, mere power-holding is different from leadership. Adolf Hitler called himself– and was called – the Führer, meaning, the Leader. But was he really? Once Hitler gained power and crushed all oppositions, many came to know who he really was – a tyrant! Under the guise of leadership, he manipulatively brainwashed his people into following him and he used fear of brute force to get others into submission. Real leadership, in contrast, is not usurping power by manipulation or grapping leadership positions through the use of intimidation. Leadership has to do with attracting willing followers based on shared values or common aspirations.  

We have another big misconception about leadership. Some of us think that we can become leaders by purchasing leadership positions. We assume as if leadership is like a commodity or something like a property. But leadership is about inner qualities or personal traits. Only when these personal qualities influence others in a relationship context can we see the emergence of leadership.  

Then, there are those who think leadership can be passed on like a baton from one person to another, or like an entitlement from a ruler to the next in the family line in much the same way as an inheritance. They think that because a ruler has occupied a public office for a long time, his children have somehow earned the right to claim the same privileges after him. This is another fallacy about leadership.  

Leadership, unlike naked power-holding, is inseparable from followers’ needs and goals. According to James B. Burns, a renowned political scientist, the essence of leadership is the ability of a person to induce others to pursue a common purpose whether that be values and goals, wants and needs, or aspirations and expectations. A leader’s fundamental goal is to induce people to be aware or conscious of what they need – to feel their true needs so strongly, to define their values so meaningfully – that they can be moved to purposeful action. In other words, leadership is relational, collective, and purposeful. And its effectiveness must be judged not by the powerfulness of the leaders but by the actual accomplishments of mutual human needs and common goals.  

We have to doubt the presence of leadership if there’s no satisfying leader-followers relation or if it is not linked to a collective purpose. When citizens are powerless, unengaged, alienated and uninspired, that means leadership has failed or is missing. This may sometimes happen due to certain arbitrary actions of some power-holders who tend to treat people as things. Another distinction is this: all leaders are actual or potential power-holders, but not all power-holders are leaders.  

Perhaps we can put all types of leadership under two broad categories: transactional and transforming. The first is called transactional leadership as it relates to politics and governance. For example, this type of leadership occurs when leaders approach followers with an eye to exchanging one thing for another: development for votes, or subsidies for campaign contributions. Such transactions comprise the bulk of relationships among leaders and followers, especially in political parties, legislatures, and governmental agencies. Hence, the need for legislative leadership, executive leadership, and managerial leadership must be clearly understood and developed for an all-round good of the people.  

Then, we have transforming leadership which can be subdivided into moral leadership, intellectual leadership, visionary leadership, and revolutionary leadership. Transforming leadership, while more complex, is more potent than transactional leadership. A transforming leader, for example, looks for potential motives in followers and seeks to exploit or satisfy the higher needs in followers. Consequently, a transforming leader can convert followers into leaders and may further elevate them into strong moral agents.  

Since the needs and proablems in every community are usually multifarious and can be extremely complicated, we must understand that one type of leadership alone cannot optimally and sufficiently address all the needs, or fix all the problems, in any given society.   In my opinion, today our Nagas are drowning in a sea of problems because we seem to be stuck with mere power-holders who are neither transactional leaders (because they don’t keep their promises) nor transforming leaders (because they aren’t leading us to higher values or to more advanced levels). And yet we the people are still complacent and indifferent. Surely, we cannot afford to go on like this.  

It’s high time we raise up a new breed of leaders who will do what they say and take us to greater heights. And all this could come in the forms of many different personality types and diverse capabilities. In other words, we need to recognize our needs for all types of leaders (I mean the good kinds) so that they can help our society grow into a healthy and balanced one. With this in mind, we will look at the various leadership types in the next several weeks. So, stay tuned.