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Should Leaders Keep Their Distance, or Just Be “One of The Guys?”

If you saw the movie “The King’s Speech,” you saw a brilliant example of the philosophy of leaders who believe they shouldn’t be like everyone else.  When the Duke of York became King of England after his older brother abdicated, he was horrified of the responsibility because of his serious stammer.  When an eccentric therapist insisted they work together as equals, the Duke’s response is telling:  “I’d be home with my wife and no one would give a damn if we were equals.” Leaders of the time understood that they had responsibilities, were required to make sacrifices, and lead different lives than everyone else.  Contrast that with today, where the attitude is that leaders should be accessible and relatable.  People want leaders to be one of the guys, hang out, and be a friend like everyone else. In fact, in America today, it’s almost an embarrassment to agree with Thomas Jefferson that  society should have “a natural aristocracy among men composed of virtues and talents.”

Among business leaders, pastors, and even military leaders (see Owen Honors who was just relieved of command of the U.S.S. Enterprise after the revelation that he starred in a series of raunchy, over the top comedy videos) – it’s assumed that leaders today should take a remarkably casual attitude toward leadership.

I understand that philosophy and in many cases have urged leaders to be more accessible and understanding to the people they lead.  However, I also understand the need to keep some distance.  After all, a leader has to make the hard decisions, like which direction the organization takes, which  team members come along, or which team members get left behind.  Sometimes leaders can’t be “nice.”  They have to make sacrifices and decisions that aren’t popular.

I find it interesting that reports across the country are that people are applauding (and some are cheering) at the end of “The King’s Speech.”  Certainly it’s a sublimely well-crafted movie.  But I think there’s also something more.

In a time of cowardly government leaders, out of control celebrities, pampered athletes, greedy business leaders, and even the parade of church leaders caught in sexual or financial compromise, people are crying out for leaders who are different.  They’re not looking for a pal – they’re looking for someone who can make tough choices, provide insight, tackle a difficult challenge, and rise above the fray.

If you’re a leader, don’t think you have to be everybody’s friend.  It’s not about being arrogant, or a jerk – it’s about preparing yourself (and your team) for the tough calls.  Leadership isn’t about being cool.  It’s about taking people from where they are to where they need to be.

As King George VI reminded us, it’s not about being hip, it’s about rising to the occasion.

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  1. Phil, This is an excellent piece. One of my mentors once reminded me that the people you lead typically will never rise above the example you set. If you set the bar low, they are right there with you. If you set it high, they will strive to get where you are. Leadership does require at least some distance, accompanied by a healthy dose of humility.

  2. Parenting is a good analogy here. A child needs a parent who will look out for him/her, who will fight for the child’s well-being (even when the child doesn’t know what’s best for him/her), and who will help set a direction for the child’s life, even when that means making unpopular choices. None of this can happen if the parent acts like a peer, and that’s certainly true in leadership as well.

  3. Phil, I enjoyed reading this article. I have found that as a leader, people have a different view of you. They see you in church functioning your ministry position. There is definitely a balance to being a leader that is touchable but yet taking a position where you can make the hard decisions.

  4. This is a good article Phil. It’s the same reason a parent can’t play the “best friend” role to their child. If they did, they would surrender their leadership role to a lesser cause.

  5. Thank you for sharing your take on leadership, I appreciate that sometimes saying and doing the right thing is often not popular, but as leaders we are called to be effective and often at the expense of being popular.

  6. Wow. This is really great! Thanks for saying it! What a wonderful edification to all leaders! (Including parents!) I’m a homeschooling Mother of five children, whom I love dearly, and even I feel the temptation daily to be “friends with” my kids instead of “leading” my kids. I want my family to be close and very deeply connected in love, but I don’t want to be afraid of the hard calls and setting a standard! Excellent words for all people- THANKS! 🙂

  7. I agree with your article, and the audience clapped at the end of this movie when I went to see it , but I attributed it to the fact that 75 % of the moviegoers were seniors and I believe this was a normal thing to do at the end of a movie in their time. I clapped because it was an excellent movie with a great message.

    1. It is not the normal think to do for seniors to clap at the end of a movie. I have only clapped for one movie all my days and been stunned in silence at one.

  8. Aren’t you really missing the point here though Phil? Geoffrey Rush’s (playing the character of speech therapist) was calling for equality so as to be able to help ‘Bertie’ be the King he actually saw him to be.

    Bertie’s stutter was because he was held back by his fears and events of his childhood and the picture beautifully portrayed how two unlikely men become friends. If the picture has a commentary on leadership it is about how a man who doesn’t believe he has what it takes to be a leader (despite the obvious belief of others around him like his wife) finds help with his struggles through this friendship.

    I reckon a better illustration from the film for your point would have been the scene with the archbishop towards the end of the film where despite the protests of the archbishop Bertie makes his own decision about what he will do. In fact a contrast of the archbishop (who tries to be the ‘friend’ towards Edward) with Bertie would get your point across excellently.

  9. In my opinion one of America’s greatest leaders “Ronald Reagan” set the tone. He seemed to be everyone’s favorite uncle, but few even in his inter circle really knew him. He had the gift to reach many without offending close friends with tough daily responses to a very dangerous world.

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