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Why Do We Expect So Little of Our Leaders?

We are one week away from the U.S. election on November 3, 2020, and I wonder how much “real” leadership expectations will play into the ultimate results. One candidate wants us to take him at his word, ignore his track record of lies and deception (especially in handling a pandemic with almost 230K American lives lost, and current spike in COVID-19 cases in 40+ U.S. states), and trust that he alone can fix the issues ailing the nation and economy. The other candidate is running on the notion of returning decency to the office of the Presidency, listening to scientists to get the pandemic under control, supporting inclusion, building back relationships with our global allies, and fighting for what he calls the "soul of the nation".

I’ve had several conversations with friends voting for the incumbent. And in our discussions about his performance over the past 4 years, “decency”, “setting a positive example”, and “being a good leader” have taken a back seat to a perception that the sitting President, as abhorrent as he may be as a person, has reduced U.S. participation in armed conflicts around the world and had a decent track record on the economy prior to COVID-19. They were more concerned with the other candidate's pledge to raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy making over $400,000/year, “which might reduce job opportunities and negatively impact the economy, as well as a return to policies of drone attacks on regimes around the world.”

Nothing else really mattered to them in the selection process, which brought up the question to me: When did our bar for leadership sink so low?

When did the “What” become more acceptable than the “How”? When did real leadership stop mattering. Courageous leadership such as the kind demonstrated by Abraham Lincoln when he freed the slaves. Inspirational leadership like that exhibited by John F. Kennedy during the space race. Or soulful leadership embodied by Martin Luther King during the fight for Civil Rights. Maybe the fact that I have to go back so far for real examples provides a clue into the issue - we just don't make "real" leaders like this anymore.

Unfortunately, toxic leadership practices and behaviors have taught us that the “How only matters when you get caught doing something really bad. Or in the case of #45, your ability to continuously flip the script on your accusers and actually garner sympathy for your incompetence. When we begin to accept a leader's excuses for not doing their job, then we become a part of the problem. Every leadership guru in the world preaches that leaders must walk the talk so where is the disconnect occurring?

I refuse to use racism, faith, or greed as valid justifications for accepting terrible leaders. Racists need a real solution to COVID-19 just as much as anti-racists do. People of a certain faith don't want to see their communities torn apart by social strife any more than atheists do. Both rich and poor alike should be able to agree that by eliminating a healthcare act that will take coverage away from 20 million Americans and impact over 100 million with pre-existing conditions - just because it was implemented by a Black man - is nonsensical if you are failing to offer up a valid alternative.

Some things are just basic. Real leadership is not complex. Leaders take accountability for failings that happen on their watch. Leaders embody the values they expect others to emulate. Leaders build progressive cultures. Leaders take the oath of protecting those in their charge with the utmost seriousness. Leaders look in the mirror when accepting blame and out the window when offering praise. Leaders are humble in the face of challenge, exert tremendous will to influence positive outcomes, and are capable of tremendous empathy for those in their care.

Still, what do you do when leaders of all stripes continuously disappoint the people?

Do you make up excuses when Catholic priests take advantage of young boys; when CEO's steal the pensions of thousands of employees; when a President philanders with women, lies about the need to go to war, and justifies drone strikes; when superstar athletes admit to cheating on a massive scale; when parents divorce due to infidelity or abuse; or when authorities murder indiscriminately instead of protecting and serving?

Until leaders start getting into these positions for the right reasons, exhibiting the highest standard of behavior, and influencing in the right direction, we will continuously accept these failings as normal. Even, unfortunately, in the highest office in the land.

The Democratic candidate has stated that the reason he decided to run for President was what he witnessed in Charlottesville, Virginia, when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd and sadly killed an innocent young woman protesting. Instead of being complacent like the current incumbent, this candidate saw what division was doing to this nation that he so loved, and decided at that moment to step into the fray and provide an alternative to the brand of leadership corrupting the opposing party. He vows to heal the nation and be a leader for “ALL Americans”.

Let's see if the majority of Americans want a leader who wants to heal all of us or more toxic leadership at all costs.

Omar L. Harris is the managing partner at Intent Consulting, a firm dedicated to improving employee experience and organizational performance and author of Leader Board: The DNA of High-Performance Teams and The Servant Leader's Manifesto available for purchase in ebook or print on Please follow him Instagram, Twitter, and/or his website for more information and engagement.

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