Rolodex and Rolex

The following is the second in a series of essays on leadership. You can read the first installment in the series here.

What I am working on here, with mixed results, is a theory of leadership. Unlike most popular works on leadership, I am not constructing a normative theory based upon anecdotal vignettes of businessmen or politicians performing whatever acts the author declares, ipso facto, to be leaderly. I am trying to tease out the prescriptive essence of what a person must do, who a person must be, in order to deserve to be called a good leader.

World history and our own personal experiences testify to the fact that a leader’s agenda and legacy can be benevolent, benign, or malignant. Sometimes, a leader’s legacy is mixed, with certain eras or offices falling into different categories. For instance, ancient Romans may have thought Julius Caesar benevolent as a general but malignant as an emperor. Sadly, this is a common trajectory in the annals of power. Whether a fire warms our hearth or consumes our home, it is still a fire. Whether a leader empowers and uplifts a people or eviscerates and crushes them, he is still a leader. Purposes and parameters direct the course of power. To be a good leader, then, requires training in being a leader and in being good and in staying good—in maintaining a sober wisdom when others would be drunk on power.

By my count, there are plenty of bad leaders in the world already, and they are of two basic types. There are bad leaders who are weak, indecisive, or ineffective. These are benign leaders; they are inconvenient, even painful tumors in an organization or constituency, but their ineptitude results in only localized damage. (Doctors still recommend their removal and disposal.) Then there are BAD leaders, who are toxically, cruelly effective. I call these malignant leaders, because their conniving influence can metastasize and lay waste to an entire company or polity.

Malignant leaders may seem to lead effectively, but they pursue an agenda of ruthless self-aggrandizement or wanton destruction. Just about anyone can rattle off the names of a few surgically diabolical leaders who have made heads roll upon the world stage, while, on a smaller scale, we have all rolled our eyes at the petty princes who took a slash-and-burn path to their well-appointed corner offices.

I am a proponent of studying exemplars from the past, so that we might learn from their experiences and translate specific principles into our own situations. But measuring the quality of a leader solely according to his legacy is like giving vitamins to a cadaver. It’s too late to affect change in the present. The education of good leaders must also be designed to increase our fluency in the timeless vocabulary and systemic dynamics of leadership. Then, this generation and the next might be prepared in advance for our appointed times at the helm.

Leadership is, on a fundamental level, an act of fluency, of flow or movement toward one or more objectives. A leader, like a river, is not satisfied or stagnant until the delta has been reached. Leadership, like a river, is a propulsive force that can, under the right circumstances, nourish and connect the land and its inhabitants. But leadership, like a river, can also be a destructive force in its negligence—when it dries up from drought or damming—or in its overabundance—when it overflows its banks and annihilates its neighbors.

Typical modern leadership is composed of two half-truths masquerading as a whole truth. Leadership is now perceived as the multiplicative product of influence and affluence. In other words: influence times affluence equals leadership. Think about our so-called leaders: they are either cavorting with congressmen (exercising influence) or yachting off Yalta (exhibiting affluence). Usually both. For example, campaign finance is the playground of those who use their affluence to gain influence, while lobbyists use their influence to gain affluence.

Influence is access. Influence is setting the agenda. Influence is a spider’s web of transactions, of debits and credits. Influence dresses in grey pinstripes, drives a black Mercedes, drinks well-aged scotch, and flies first class on a legacy carrier. Favors, deals, handshakes, introductions, arm twists, phone calls, suggestions, box seats, bribes, threats, innuendo, private dining rooms, golf rounds: these are the currency of influence.

For a person to have influence, she must be able to hold sway over the thoughts or actions of another. On a minor scale, my words or example might influence a friend to attend a certain college or to avoid a certain restaurant. On a major scale, a politician might influence a distant economy through sanctions, embargoes, or, more positively, by expanding trade agreements.

Influence is about conformity to my norms and my demands as a leader. I want something done, and I know who will get it done and how to get it done. I am not looking for input or suggestions; I’m looking for the expeditious execution of my plan. And I will not be placed on hold.

Affluence is excess. Affluence is the appearance of success. Affluence is a network of perceptions. Affluence dresses in designer tuxedos, drives a pearl Bugatti, drinks top-shelf vodka, and flies in a fractional Gulfstream. Galas, top-whatever lists, red carpets, bestsellers, philanthropic events, gallery openings, sex, tweets, backstage passes, tony trattorias, tennis matches: these are the currency of affluence.

For a person to have affluence, he need not be wealthy when viewed through the wire-rimmed frames of the banker, but rather through the telephoto lens of the paparazzi. But for the general public, the appearance of success is a proxy for he-sure-did-something-right. Moreover, the affluent person is connected; she is always in-the-know.

Affluence is about ambition and achievement. It’s about proximity to power. Health and wealth and the absence of stealth. It is VIP credentials in a general admission world. It’s about expectations and wish-fulfillment, about fairy tales and castles and shimmering knights. It’s about the tall, good-looking man who looks like he should be leading something. It is the presumption of dynastic succession, that out of 300 million people in the United States of America, W. and Jeb are best prepared to lead.

Sadly, aspiring leaders are tutored by our culture to be well-connected and well-groomed above all else. While both influence and affluence have their rightful place in the world, they are a cracked foundation upon which to build a truer theory of leadership. There is a third kind of fluency that serves that purpose much better.

About Ben Ponder, Editor-at-Large

Ben Ponder, PhD, is Editor-at-Large at Media Rostra. Ben has received decorative pieces of paper conferring upon him an unnamed set of “rights and privileges accorded thereto” from the University of Arkansas, Regent College, and Northwestern University (where he was a Presidential Fellow). He studied (in alphabetical order) architecture, classics, communication, history, political science, rhetoric, and theology. He is the author of American Independence: From Common Sense to the Declaration (“Sizzling.” – TMZ) and the co-editor of Making the Case: Advocacy and Judgment in Public Argument (“Six-pack abs-olutely great!” – US Weekly). Ben is currently an executive in the educational software industry. He and his organic wife, Amy, live with their four free-range kids in a farmhouse Ben designed and built. His personal site on the Interweb is benponder.com, and he can be reached on Twitter @ponderben.