Here’s Why Most Leaders Suck, But You Won’t

This is a a child whose name I don’t know. In North Darfur, greeting the United Nations, a couple of years ago. Looking at her, I hate my spoiled ways. Can’t live without wifi for half an hour.

But then I think about the people who are trying to help her. People whose names you don’t know, but I do. And I think, maybe I can redeem myself just a little bit by sharing their qualities with you. Because I’ve imitated them, consciously and unconsciously, and they work, though my life and challenges aren’t remotely as significant.

Although to be honest there are more frustrations than victories, and I’ve had to learn to live with that.

You may be thinking you’re fairly powerless to do anything of real significance “out there.” It’s true – most people easily fall into survival mode, are cynical, take the pessimistic view because then they’ll never be wrong. They haven’t seen great leadership in action.

You are not powerless, though. You have all of the qualities I’m about to list here. And you’ve probably used them all in some way, in your personal life. You just need someone to tell you that you can use them, at least in some measure, professionally.

So here goes – a short list of effective leadership techniques for making a difference – that anyone can adopt in their own way:

#1: Believe it 

This part is sort of basic, but it needs to be said. You have to actually envision the positive difference you want to make. I asked a rabbi the other day if the Jewish concept of messiah referred to a historical age or an actual person. He said that there will indeed be a person who will save the entire world from destruction, ushering in an era of peace for all. He believes it and I believe it. Without belief you can’t do anything.

#2: Stick with it

The year 2014 has been horrible for me and a lot of other people I know. It’s been challenging to maintain my belief in anything. I’ve seen terrible suffering that made me wonder how G-d could indeed be good. I’ve made stupid and obvious misjudgments that made me question whether my optimism and idealism is the result of intelligence or infinite immaturity. I’ve been hit with more than one natural plague – try bedbugs! – which made me reconsider whether it’s smart to spend my time thinking great thoughts rather than throwing every possible item in my home into a hot dryer for at least two hours a day.

And then I look back on this year and I think about the many concrete victories that I cannot share with you, I can tell you that they are very satisfying. The ones that mean the most to me have to do with people, with seeing that light come on in their eyes and knowing that they will carry a torch forward somewhere else and I will never know about it.

#3: Gather powerful supporters

There is no question that the most effective leaders have financial, political and cultural backing from people of influence. Nobody lives on an island, and you can have the best ideas in the world, but it really does take an army of people to implement positive change effectively.

I have observed that people who have this particular skill are able to defer to the supporter and make the vision seem like the supporter’s idea, when in fact it is the leader’s ideas being promoted.

It’s truly brilliant to kind of merge yourself with somebody else who has deep pockets and whose Rolodex holds the phone numbers of people who can make the difference between your vision being adopted and totally ignored or dismissed as insanity.

#4: Communicate frequently and visually

It never ceases to amaze me that people still dismiss the importance of communication in achieving any kind of positive change. Listen: I didn’t make this skill up because I enjoy doing it, I am telling you to “own it” because it works.

In two decades, and having executed it well and imperfectly, and having watched others own it and become handsomely rich and powerful as a result, I am urging you to either communicate on your own or get some help doing it. It is not only worth every penny, but the return on your investment is far greater than whatever you will pay.

Communication of course is not limited to formal campaigns, but includes everyday verbal communication and emails, much of which we tend to ignore because we think it isn’t “fancy” or “formal.”

#5: Learn to compromise

We live in the real world with real people. Human beings are funny, they are flawed, they don’t live a black-and-white existence that’s either perfect or totally flawed. I was talking to my husband about the rabbi who was accused of voyeurism in the ritual bath: Are all his good deeds nullified because of this one terrible thing? I don’t think so. Those deeds will live forever, but the bad deeds he has done can’t be ignored either.

In the same way, there are going to be be inefficient or unhelpful people, structures, or traditions in the workplace that prevent you from making change happen easily and quickly. Don’t worry about it. That’s the world we live in.

You just do the best you can.


Disclaimer: This blog is written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government. Photo by the United Nations via Flickr.

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Patrick Fiorenza

Fantastic post. This one (along with many) hit me as super powerful: “Nobody lives on an island, and you can have the best ideas in the world, but it really does take an army of people to implement positive change effectively.”

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!