The responsibility of Leading

August 4th, 2019 by Douglas McEncroe · No Comments · Culture, Leadership, Personal Development

John AdamsI am reading a biography of John Adams, a leading figure during the American war of Independence, one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the second president of the United States.

I must admit to being a fan of this period of American history, I find it quite extraordinary the quality of the founding fathers, their intelligence, their culture and their humanism. Just before the revolution broke out, Adams, despite his fervent patriotism, successfully defended a group of British soldiers who had fired on a mob killing several Americans in an event that became know as the Boston Massacre. His defence of these soldiers earned him the scorn, and even the enmity of his fellow patriots, but his commitment to the principle that all men are innocent until they are proven guilty led him to take on the defence. In today’s world of trial by social media in which people’s reputations are destroyed without a shred of evidence, one could well wish that there were more people who shared Adam’s commitment.

Reading his biography I am struck by the incredible level of his culture. For a man whose life was filled to the brim with a frenetic legal and political activity, he always found time to widen his knowledge, continuously studying the law and reading history, political treatises, philosophy and poetry, or indeed, conversing with people from whom he could learn. He also found time for his friends and to a wealth of correspondence, which I suspect helped clarify his own ideas and reflect on his experiences. When he went to the first Continental Congress he himself was impressed by the general level of the delegates from the thirteen colonies gathered to study and debate the dangerous step of declaring their independence from Great Britain. How lucky these colonies were to have this generation in their greatest hour of need.

The distractions that make us worse

I often think how poor we are today in comparison with regards to the depth of our knowledge. We seemed to be trapped in a sea of banality. The commercial television stations are an insult to our intelligence, the ABC and Sky bastions of tribalism while social media gives a platform to people who talk about complex issues with the depth of a five year old.

How easy it is to get addicted to all of this. We carelessly fall into having to catch up on the latest newspaper article or look at our Facebook page. We pick up our iPad or smart phones for the latest fix, but what value does all this give us? Reading history is hard work but we get an insight into how society and organisations work. Reading good literature requires time and concentration but it gives us understanding of what moves human beings and nurtures our compassion. Reading the results of hard work carried out by true experts in any field reminds us of the complexity of the issues facing us today and helps be open to listening to different sides of any argument.

What do we owe the people we lead?

I used to read the press on my iPad before going to sleep, making me nervous and sometimes angry. I have replaced it with books. I notice that I am calmer, more tolerant and am thinking more deeply. I have also become more sceptical about people who defend positions like a zealot and I refuse to be enlisted into the battalions of the right or the left. It’s a constant struggle but I think it is worth it.

Surely anyone who is leading people owe them their best selves. John Adams, and I believe many of his contemporaries, constantly worked on becoming better human beings. I doubt very much that they would have been seduced by today’s press or social media.

What can you do to become the person you can be? What can you bring of yourself to the people you lead?


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