Many people confuse good leadership with effective leadership, but a contrarian leader knows there is a huge difference between the two. Hitler was an extraordinarily effective leader, but few would refer to him a good leader.
It’s relatively easy for people to agree on the characteristics of an effective leader: traits like vision casting, inspiring trust and commitment, caring for team members, keeping an eye on the goal, etc. But, it’s impossible to assess whether a leader is good or bad without talking about moral values, especially the moral values of the person making the assessment. Thus the goodness of a leader is very much in the eye of the beholder.
What a leader does in the face of adversity is the very essence of good leadership, and often of effective leadership as well. This leadership exercise is basically “deciding which hill we are willing to die on.” Picking one hill automatically precludes us from picking many others. But we have to get clear on which it is.
The expression comes from military tradition expressing it is always in the defender’s favor when battles are on elevated terrain. Before air warfare, one had not only to overcome an enemies defenses but doing so while at a height disadvantage. Many military battles became slaughters when commanders forced their men to take heavily fortified hills.
Conventional military wisdom is that hill battles should be avoided if at all possible because the cost in men generally wouldn’t be worth the fight. When a commander was ordered to take a hill, they would often question the rationale, “Is this a hill worth dying over?”
“A critical decision for any leader is to know which hills you are prepared to die on and to know you can’t die on all of them. Making your choices about what is core to your own code is the first step toward being liberated to do what you must. Then you can live.”
~ Paul D. Houston
Now here’s a contrarian thought: once we know which hill we are really willing
to die on, we keep it to ourselves. If we as leaders reveal to everyone the areas of moral behavior on which we are absolutely unwilling to compromise under any circumstances, our adversaries will almost surely use this knowledge to ensnare or undermine us. Whoa…maybe I am a bit paranoid? I know many would be inclined to dismiss such advice, but in the realpolitik of serious leadership, a bit of discretion about our inner lives is usually the better part of valor—a lesson I have been mentored I need to learn (we are all a work in progress).
In order for leaders to know the hill we are willing to die on, we need to be consciously aware of our own moral beliefs and what the basis is for those beliefs. If not religious (or at least spiritual) in origin, one’s core moral values may prove unreliable in a clutch. Practically speaking, a leader must know where his ethical convictions (Greater Good or G2) diverge from pure self-interest (Personal Power / P2).
On a side note—as leaders we don’t always need to insist that followers adopt our moral code. As leaders, we must choose our own moral course of action and accept undiminished responsibility for the full scope and effect of our choices. At the same time, we should be open to the strongly held moral beliefs of others. Occasionally a leader may need to forthrightly condemn a follower’s or a colleague’s beliefs as just plain wrong; other times we will find our own moral code influenced by those around us.
Ethical leadership requires leaders to choose one set of moral values over all others, and then take full responsibility for our actions based on those values. Such leaders are easily distinguishable from those who lead purely by expediency (and whose long-term impact is usually minimal). Do you know what hill you are willing to die on?
“Humans will probably always need the help of especially gifted moral leaders in order to extend the bonds of caring and trust beyond the easy range of the family and the face-to-face community. Such bonds have become essential to the future of humanity.”
—Paul R. Lawrence