Leadership Essay Series: Abrasiveness

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What
role do you think personality plays in leadership? Please give examples.

 

This week I met with a
representative from Teach for America. For those of you who aren’t familiar
with the organization, Teach for America sends teachers into schools whose
students live below the poverty line. It’s a great program, but something the
representative told me didn’t sit well with me. He was explaining the
recruitment and training process that corps members go through, and he told me
that they are unable to train leadership -that people are either leaders or
they aren’t -so they recruit people who have held prominent positions at their
universities, and train them in education methods to teach kids from low income
families. What I disagree with is that I think the whole concept of proper
educating hinges on the belief that leadership can be taught. If you think
about it -despite all that you may have be conditioned by standardized tests
and the multitude of scantrons which you have inevitably filled out here at
Penn State -if you really think about it, good education teaches students to be
critical thinkers, and improper “education” conditions students to be drones.

 

Example: when you were a
junior in High School and you were preparing for the SAT, did you decide to
simply apply yourself more in school, or did you purchase the Kaplan textbooks
which taught you exactly how to most efficiently complete the test? Paying more
attention in school would teach you to think critically about the material
you’re confronted with, and thus be able to create your own opinions and even
counter arguments to the content, but test taking seminars will only teach you
to find the answer which is expected of you. Granted, I grew up without
scantrons and standardized tests, and as a result think that they’re absurd,
but I invite you to humor me here for the next few paragraphs of this essay.

 

My point is this: leadership
is not acquired, and the only connection to personality that I am confident that
is has is whether a person is of an active mind, and not a passive one. My
argument hinges on the assumption that the status quo of our world today is
everything but perfect, and requires men and women in every culture to be
active agents of change in their communities if we are ever to progress. If you
look at history, time and time again when unjust leaders have assumed power,
they have done so by conditioning the public to see only one valid argument. It
works; it worked with the Nazis, it worked with Communist China, it worked for
Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Passiveness can be conditioned, and leadership can be
inspired.

 

Personality obviously plays
a role in leadership syle, but frankly if good leadership means leading justly,
consistently, and serving those who put you into leadership, then does it
really matter whether someone is an introvert or an extrovert? If the goal is
reached -given proper conduct -then what real consequence is the route taken?
It is for this reason that I argue that the only personality trait that is of
true consequence is abrasiveness. I believe that the world is a very dark and
sickly place, and it takes abrasive men and women to stand up for justice. MLK,
Ghandi, Mandela, Bonhoeffer, Calvin, Wilburforce -all of these men, though very
different personalities, had one thing in common: their disillusionment by the
status quo, and their conviction to speak against it.

 

I think that we often
confine leadership to the broader, political, business, science public
position, but I believe that we’re missing the point if we fail to recognize
the need for leadership to begin at the most ordinary level; the people right
here around us. How do we handle personal disputes, family matters, friends of
ours who appear alcoholic at times. How can our ordinary reactions give insight
into our leadership? Because if we really are leaders -good ones -then we will
inevitably seek to influence those around us for the better. What good is a
representative if he creates a thousand jobs for his constituents if he cheats
on his wife or if he abuses his children? Has he actually made the world a
better place? Good leadership begins at the bottom, and maybe makes its way up
to the top eventually, but only by being consistently abrasive to the status
quo. I am not writing of how to win friends and influence people, but rather of
the leadership that the world actually needs. We don’t need politicians with
empty promises or business leaders who care about nothing more than their
position or their compensation. As far as I’m concerned, you can win the world
easily, but true leadership shows itself in the leader’s restlessness for the
pursuit of justice.

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