Who can be called a ‘great leader’?

 David Hession,  Head of Impact Measurement & Research at LIFT Ireland 

Taking a break from my normal responsibilities for a few minutes, I’ve just Googled (purely out of curiosity), the phrase ‘great leaders’. I thought it would be interesting to see what would be churned out by whatever algorithm is deciding what we get to see and read. (As an aside I might mention that I was also going to Google ‘Ireland’s top influencers’, but I realised pretty quickly that there was absolutely no chance of me recognising the names – I then did Google it; and I was right).

Anyway, back to my ‘Great leaders’ search. The following was the somewhat predictable and, dare I say it, disappointing list that I was given:

  • Mahatma Gandhi
  • George Washington
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Adolf Hitler
  • Muhammad
  • Mao Zedong
  • Nelson Mandela
  • Julius Caesar

It’s hard to know exactly where to start with a list like this: 8 people named, all of them men. Among their number we certainly have a few who without doubt can be called ‘great’, but we also have dictators, fascists and at least one self-appointed emperor!

What does this list say about how we think of leadership? To my mind, it’s got it all wrong. This list largely (but not completely) represents the leadership of control, authority and power. Is that what being a great leader is about? Does a great leader need to be a person of great fame or power? Does a great leader need to be in charge? Can we only lead if we are in what might be called a typical leadership position?

I think that equating leadership with position or power misses a really important point. There are so many people around the world who have the position, resources and influence that could allow them to make a huge difference, yet they choose not to do so. These are people who run trillion-euro companies while paying minimum wage to staff; or talk to voters of the need for fiscal prudence while giving friends and contacts comfortable jobs as consultants and advisors. They are people who fly in their private planes to attend Davos each year to talk about saving the planet.

What an incredible abdication of responsibility. Every politician, businessman/woman who finishes their career without having fought tooth and nail to ease suffering, make our planet a sustainable place to live and create a better society, should equally hang their head in shame. That is not leadership.

Great leadership is not about having an amazing ability to drive change. It is not about being able to motivate and bring people with you. These are talents seen in hucksters and snake oil salesmen as frequently as in leaders.

For me, the definition of a ‘great leader’ is someone who’s aim is to make things better for others and then has the courage to do what they believe to be right, despite the difficulty and, in many cases, precisely despite their lack of power or position.

To my mind, and whether or not I agree with everything that they say, great leadership is seen in people like Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai. It is seen in people like Alicia Garza and others within the Black Lives Matters movement; in sustainable development campaigner Ernesto Sirolli and emergency war surgeon David Nott. It is also seen in any number of carers, community volunteers and educators. It is seen wherever people decide that they are going to put others before themselves. These are people who believe in their responsibility to make a difference in their own small way. And in doing so they influence others to do likewise.

As Alicia Garza said, ‘Leadership today doesn’t look like Martin Luther King’. The truth is that great leadership never had any particular look – its face has always been yours and mine, our kids’, colleagues’ and friends’. Because every one of us is called upon to lead. The question is whether I will answer that call.

Who are the great leaders in your life? If you’re a LIFT facilitator nominate them for a LIFT award below.

Click here to nominate