The Character of Passionate Leadership

Ivan the Terrible was worse than Leroy Brown. Not only was the Russian ruler meaner than a junk yard dog, he was the “baddest man in the whole dang world!” “The” was not his middle name; his middle name should have been “fighting.” He was a warrior’s warrior. He got up every morning ready, willing and eager for battle. He fought, not because that is what he did; he fought because that is who he was.

After many years as a single man, he finally decided to marry Sophia, the daughter of the king of Greece. He learned after selecting her as his bride that a prerequisite to the marriage was that he become a member of the Greek Orthodox Church and be baptized. And, the church was opposed to warfare of any kind for any reason. When he learned that a baptized member of the church could not be a professional soldier, he was in a pickle. Should he abandon the church, give up Sophia, or find another solution? He chose the latter.

When he and 500 members of his Army went into the water with 500 priests to be baptized by immersion, they each raised their arm, sword in hand, out of the water. Their bodies joined the church that day, but their swords and arms for fighting remained unbaptized.

There are many ways to interpret this story. You could call him inflexible and stubborn. You could label him devious, unethical and only interested in his own selfish interests. Some might call him a cheater; a weasel who found a clever way to beat the system. I opt for the “commitment to his passion” interpretation. He embraced and ennobled the hill he was willing to die on.

Passionate Leadership is Courageous

Great leaders demonstrate passion-driven courage. Not a show-off fearless kind of courage, but rather an “I only regret I have but one life to lose for my country” kind of valor. It is the courage that wells up from a devotion to duty rather than bravery that extends from disorderly desperation. It comes from leadership that takes its lead from a dogged commitment to a principle as well as an insatiable desire to stand for that principle.

The Tattered Cover in Denver is one of the largest independent bookstores in America. Founded in 1971, it has hosted live readings by such famous writers as Julie Child, J.K. Rowling, and three U.S. presidents. The bookstore came under attack when owner Joyce Meskis refused to release the book-purchasing records of a customer who was part of a criminal investigation. Losing her case in the lower courts, Meskis funded an expensive appeal on the grounds of her customers’ First Amendment rights. Not only did she win the state Supreme Court case, she won the admiration of customers around the globe. Even those who disagreed with her position praised her courage in the face of strong opposition and risk of significant financial loss.

Great leaders are willing to go against the tide. Too many leaders today have been inundated with the innumerable ways they can violate employee rights and infringe on the sanctity of good public relations. As they have been instructed in "act like a leader," they have been informed to "think like a lawyer." Many have learned to surrender to unrealistic demands of some issue-based fringe when their consciences scream for “acting on principle.” Too many leaders would rather lose sleep than lose face. Such timidity has bred cautiousness about controversy that has spread beyond complex employee relations issues. The dearth of value-based decisions has left too many organizations with a “character deficit.”

Passionate Leadership is Conviction

Leaders who display conviction elevate those around them to pursue greatness. C.S. Lewis wrote in his essay, “The Weight of Glory” about the ease with which people can be half-hearted creatures, “like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.” Passionate leaders recruit followers to pursue, as Victor Hugo wrote, “a reach that far exceeds their grasp.” It is their invitational commitment to a purpose grander than themselves that advances and promotes others.

Purpose can be a deep commitment to the product or service provided to the marketplace. “You’ve gotta be able to see the beauty in a hamburger bun, “ said Ray Kroc, founder of McDonalds. Debbi Fields, founder of Mrs. Fields Cookies, echoed the same theme. “I am not a businesswoman. I’m a cookie person.” Southwest Airlines President Emeritus Colleen Barrett says it this way: “We are not an airline with great customer service. We are a great customer service organization that happens to be in the airline business.”

Leaders often are heard to say, “It’s lonely at the top.” Such sentiment is taken from a perspective that positions leadership as a top-down controlling relationship and not a partnership with colleagues. When Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell was asked how he dealt with the stark terror of being in a space capsule facing almost certain destruction he said, “We had an important job to do and we were never alone.” Great leaders may be by themselves at times, but they are never alone.

Leaders are not fearless beings that stoically snub their nose at terror. They are real life human beings who face danger standing on legs of rubber with their stomach in their throat. Danger makes them as queasy as a young recruit posed for his first taste of battle. But, great leaders lean into danger out of strong sense of duty and responsibility to act like a pro because feel accountable to those they serve.

John Ellis in an article entitled Strategy in the October, 2002, issue of Fast Company wrote: “Here’s what real business leaders do. They go out and rally the troops, plant the flag, and make a stand. They confront hostile audiences and they deal with the press. If the issue is confidence, they conduct themselves confidently. If the issue is trust, they make their company’s business transparent. If the issue is character, they tell the truth. They do not shirk responsibility; they assume command. Because a fundamental ingredient of business success is leadership. And the granular stuff of leadership is courage, conviction, and character.

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