That anyone can develop as a leader is not in question. What I dispute is the stubborn resolve that great and good are points along the same stream. That just isn’t so. Great leadership and good leadership have distinctly different characteristics and paths. Leadership is not one-dimensional. It can be great and good, or one but not the other, or neither.
Great leadership is powerful, dominating, often overwhelming. It can sweep people along through sheer animation. Great leadership excites, energizes, and stimulates. It’s a rousing call, shocking complacency and inertia into action. It’s one of the most potent pulls in human history, and as such accounts for much of humanity’s progress, as well as its suffering. While it ignites collective action and stirs passion, its direction depends largely on those that wield its power. Great has no inherent moral compass, and thus its unpredictable potency can just as easily be put toward pugilistic and peaceful purposes.
To speak of good leadership is to speak of protecting and advancing widely accepted principles through means to ends. It denotes doing the “right” thing. There may be legitimate differences in interpretation of what’s right and wrong, but long-standing ethics, mores, and customs of conduct that have allowed individuals and collectives to survive and thrive are remarkably similar across culture and time. Good heeds the best interests and welfare of others.
Good leadership is not as arresting as great leadership. When good rules the day, it’s not so noticeable, as things are transpiring as they should. Great is dramatic, whereas good is the blended background, a values-based screen upon which great deeds unfold. This accounts for why the force of great often overshadows the direction of good.
It’s natural to think of leadership as running from one end to the other. To do so, though, is to mistake what great and good leadership are. They’re fundamentally different. Separating them, thus upending the ever-convenient continuum, seems counterintuitive. But it’s absolutely necessary for understanding the very elements that explain leadership’s operation and impact.
Great can be vital but destructive; good can be compassionate but impotent. The coexistence of the two is the best hope for leadership — without good we should fear.
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