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According to Webster’s dictionary, “to lead” is: to go before or with, to show the way, conduct or escort; to conduct by holding and guiding; to influence or induce, cause; to guide in direction, course, action, opinion, etc.

And “To govern” is: to rule over by right of authority; to exercise a directing or restraining influence over, guide; to hold in check, control; to exercise the function of government.

Many people in positions of authority seem not to know the difference, and presume that their role is to govern rather than lead. As someone raised in a very hierarchical home and religious life, I can unequivocally state that I prefer to be led rather than governed. There is something in the latter that implies an inequality of position, a moral or legal authority bestowed but possibly not earned, and the word can carry with it the whiff of paternalism and dictatorship: Know your place, for I am better, bigger, stronger, wiser and more powerful, and I know what’s good for you.

How does one define a leader, by the above criteria? The key is the phrase, show the way. There is no implied difference in power, but in ability: to guide by example, by a greater experience or knowledge, and to share that knowledge to the benefit of others. To influence, to guide, is quite a different action from to rule or to control.

Within the structure of many different types of organizations, professional, academic, corporate, artistic, charitable, it has been my experience that the quality and style of an organization is determined in large part by the people at the top. The cliché of “trickle down” turns out to be gospel. If the people in charge are authoritarian, arbitrary, unfair, condescending, disrespectful and rude, then the people who work for them respond in kind, with paranoia, disrespect and apathy. Conversely, when leadership is positive, kind, respectful and supportive in its approach, it breeds enthusiasm, loyalty and a cohesive spirit. It matters not the scope, scale or purpose of the organization: this applies to vast companies and governments as well as singing groups and soup kitchens.

It is possible to achieve good results under authoritarian leadership, at least, in the short run – after all, under Mussolini the trains in Italy did run on time. I have worked for a bank where sexual favors were traded and expected for advancement; for an agency where a bully at the top encouraged bullying amongst employees, in the form of hazing and unkind jokes; for an investment company where drug abuse was so rampant that bad behavior was the rule; for an artistic director whose was not content until at least one person burst into tears every day; for a choral conductor who hated singers; for a university where misogyny and homophobia were not just tolerated but encouraged. Yet those companies and organizations produced some good productions, good concerts, well-educated students and successful products, at least for a while. But how viable can an organization be if no one wants to stay, if the act of contributing your talents and abilities costs more in human terms than you are willing to pay? The result is instability and constant turnover, unrest, disturbance and exodus. Needless to say, with the exception of the university, well funded but still homophobic, none of the above organizations is still standing.

Leadership requires more than just the dictionary definition. An ability to communicate clearly and comfortably in public, control over personal emotions, a willingness to listen even in disagreement, discipline, selflessness and commitment, all are needed. A sense of humor is an enormous asset. When someone gets it right it is a breath of fresh air. My current choral group is led, truly led, by as generous and talented an individual as can be imagined, and in a patient warming over five years he has succeeded in bringing a grieving, aging and inconsistent group into strong and beautiful bloom. In his insistence on excellence he has shown the way, and is loved for it.

To be sure, leading a choral group is not equivalent to leading a country, but as we prepare to elect another president, I hope the qualities of true leadership can be found amongst the candidates, who after all must lead and not govern. It is a president – a “leader of the free world” – that we are seeking to elect, not a king, a dictator or a fool.



©Melody S. Owens, Poets Sinews, 2016. Reuse with permission.