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The perilous pursuit of leadership

In your aspiration to lead, beware the temptation of power. What are you in it for?

5 min read


The perilous pursuit of leadership

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It’s deep in many of us — perhaps most of us — to want to be a leader. To need to be a leader. To be recognized as a leader. But leadership can be as dangerous as it is desirable.

After all, Nero, Castro and Caligula were leaders. So was Ivan the Terrible and Attila the Hun. What sets good apart from bad?

The destination, of course, but could it also be the journey? Could the aspiration to leadership itself be corrupting? So much emphasis today is placed on where we’re going that we can be blind to the dangers of how we get there. The perilous pursuit of leadership, I believe, lies at the root of many of our problems in business, in culture and in politics.

There are, of course, as many ways to examine the pursuit as there are ways to define leadership. But start with this simple truth: leadership entails direction. Motion. If there’s nowhere to go, you don’t need a leader.

Sitting in your easy chair? No leadership necessary. Stewing in your problems? No leadership evident. Resigned to the future of your career, your company, or your country? There’s no need for leadership because you’re going nowhere.

Leaders lead because they want to get somewhere. We need leaders because we want to go somewhere. That’s as true of following a friend’s car to a new restaurant as it is of developing a business plan, launching a political movement or planning a family vacation. Someone gets to determine where we’re going. That someone is a leader. And that’s why we want to lead. We want to be the ones who decide where to go.

Nietzsche said the most basic human motivation is to impose our will on other people. We don’t have to get that dark about it, but it is true that the reason we so often want to lead is that we see a better place and we want to take our people there. We see the way things ought to be. We want to shape the world to our ends — whether it’s the world of our family, our company, our city, or our nation. If we’re leading, we get to take it in the direction we want.

And that’s where the peril arises. One thing everyone on Twitter — right, left, male, female, old, young, progressive, conservative, you name it — seems to have in common is that they’re all right in their own eyes. And Twitter is just a microcosm of life in that regard.

We all see somewhere we want to go; somewhere we want to take others. To get there, we desire to lead. But what is it we’re really seeking? Is our aim to influence or to control?

Judging from what I see online, in business, and in politics, it’s dangerously often the latter. There’s an intoxication associated with power that can be lethal. But there’s a satisfaction associated with influence that can be truly lasting.

Every president of the United States has had the same power, but not all have had the same influence. George Washington has influence today because he willingly gave up his power all those years ago.

Abraham Lincoln exercised power during the Civil War through his command of the Union Army; he has maintained influence seven score and 14 years later because of his command of the English language.

James Callaghan is a name few people know, despite his being the prime minister of Great Britain just before Margaret Thatcher. He had the same power. He did not have the same influence. And Winston Churchill, who some people suggest was the greatest man of the 20th century, is remembered not for his power — which he wasn’t granted until age 65 and which he lost despite his having saved the free world — but for his influence.

“Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never-in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense ” In that speech to a boys school in London five weeks prior to the U.S. entering World War II, Churchill used his influence to encourage his audience to stand up to power.

It’s not every day are we facing Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan or other existential threats against which we must make a stand. But every morning when we crawl out of bed, we have to contend with the perilous pursuit within. That’s what makes the desire to lead dangerous: It so easily feeds — and feeds on — our pride.

In your aspiration to lead, beware the temptation of power. Leadership, when all is said and done, is about self-government; that is, governance of the self. Oswald Sanders, author of the best leadership book I’ve ever read, wrote, “It is a general principle that we can influence and lead others only so far as we ourselves have gone.”

Some people decide they want their name to be widely known and let that determine how they’re going to live their lives. Others decide how they’re going to live their lives and let that determine how widely their name will be known. That’s a significant distinction. And in the perilous pursuit of leadership it can make all the difference.


Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is a co-founder of McKee Wallwork + Co., a marketing advisory firm that specializes in turning around stalled, stuck and stale companies. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 and 2018 as Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

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