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For more than a year America has been in the process of choosing its next president. The candidates have been endlessly inspected, dissected, analyzed, and debated.
Impossible expectations have been created because most people mistakenly think that the president's role is to manage the nation's problems. The reality is that a president's ability to manage is restricted by our Constitution, Congress, the courts, the states, and local communities. Still, the president's role is to lead. So what makes a great leader?
The foundation of leadership is not competence or charisma, but character. Charismatic people are often assumed to be the best leaders, but it's a trait that can be used for good or evil. Three of the most charismatic leaders of the 20th century -- Hitler, Mao, and Stalin -- were also its worst, destroying the lives of millions. Without character, charisma becomes a menace, used to manipulate situations for selfish reasons. Whether leading in business, education, politics, or family, character always trumps charisma.
What we desperately need in our leaders today is strong character. And while these six qualities aren't the only ones a president should possess, it's hard to be a great leader without them.
Great leaders genuinely care for and love the people they lead more than they love leading itself. Leadership without love degenerates into self-serving manipulation.
A great example of someone who led with compassion is a little-known Jewish leader named Nehemiah. In 445 B.C. he assumed the dangerous task of rebuilding Jerusalem after a devastating war. When he heard about the living conditions in the city, he mourned, prayed, and fasted for several days in order to identify with his people, who were facing food shortages, high taxes, and threats of violence. Sound familiar?
Nehemiah's compassion propelled him to action. Love acts. Apathy ignores. Leadership begins the moment someone assumes responsibility for the pain of others.Contemplation
True leaders don't just act, they think. Many leaders today are like poor photographs: overexposed and underdeveloped. Always being in the spotlight blinds you. It can be addictive and corrosive to one's character.
Great leaders build deep spiritual, emotional, and intellectual reserves through prayer, quiet, reading, and thinking about their responsibilities. They balance time spent in the public eye with time alone.
Nehemiah understood this. He thought through decisions, crises, and criticisms, seeking a wider perspective. He didn't rush to a conclusion, knowing that making the right choice was far more important than making a fast one.Cheerfulness
Great leaders inspire. They maintain a hopeful attitude, even in the face of discouraging setbacks, constant criticism, and abundant opposition. People don't follow discouraged leaders. They follow those who persist with hope.
The basis of leading with cheerfulness is not found in denying reality, faking optimism, or creating political spin. It's rooted in faith. Notable leaders keep on believing in what's right when everyone else wants to give in or give up. They believe in overcoming evil with good.
Great leaders stay focused on their objectives. They pay attention to key issues and refuse to be distracted by less important ones. Our next president needs to examine the three or four most critical issues facing America, not an exhaustive agenda of secondary problems.Courage
When recruiting men for his Antarctic expedition in 1913, Sir Ernest Shackleton placed an advertisement in a London newspaper that read: "Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success." What he was saying was that only courageous people need apply; the same goes for the presidency.
When the situation requires it and the cause is worth the cost, leaders do not hesitate to take risks. When you must jump across a canyon, cautious small steps and vacillation won't work. Sometimes you just have to go for it. Genuine leaders are willing to pay that price. Attacking tough issues takes great courage because the solutions aren't always popular. Without courage, leaders are just slaves to shifting public opinion.Clear Conscience
Some people believe that when it comes to their leaders, private lives don't matter, but we see in the media every day that that's not the case. Their sins may be personal, but they're definitely not private. These missteps crush credibility and followers' trust. Personal integrity is vital because leadership is always built on trust. The moment a leader loses that, he or she is no longer a leader -- regardless of title or position.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2008.