The Character of a Leader

Posted by: csjacobs | Posted on: March 15 , 2018 | Category:

It was a forbidding place for a thirteen year old high school freshman. Already, the inner city was crumbling around it, beginning a steady decline that would continue until Detroit was a hollowed out shell with a fifty percent illiteracy rate, and over 400 liquor stores but only one supermarket.  

We rode the city bus to school each morning, along with the winos needing a warm place to sleep and the ladies of the evening returning from work. We had no athletic field, so our physical education classes were often held in the local pool hall and bowling alley. It was not an auspicious place to forge the character of young men and women.

Decades later, I received two emails within a span of 48 hours commenting on a blog post I’d written five years earlier about a teacher at the school, Jonas Segal.

One 1964 graduate wrote, “After a career working in mental health I spent a decade teaching, hoping that everyday a little of Jonas was passed on.” Another, a 1968 graduate, wrote, “Jonas remains one of the most unforgettable and beloved people I've had the great fortune to have in my life.”

Sure, he was the kind of teacher that bailed us out (sometimes literally) when we got into trouble, and he taught us critical thinking and instilled in us a love of reading. But more importantly, he taught us how to live.

It wasn’t so much his pedagogy, as it was his example. He repeatedly turned down a lucrative offer from Hilton to travel the world and scout sites for new hotels because of his love of teaching. When I asked him, with the temerity only a teenager is capable of, how a critical thinker like him could practice his orthodox Judaism, he made no attempt to either justify or proselytize. “We all need a belief system,” he answered, “and this one works for me.”

I’ve spent my career helping the executives of the largest companies in the world be more effective leaders. It’s a daunting task to manage billions of dollars and oversee hundreds of thousands of people, and the better leaders are eager for all the help they can get. But I’ve never found the leadership techniques touted in the Harvard Business Review and its ilk to make much of a difference.

The recent discoveries in neuroscience, explain why. It’s not the latest and greatest technique that people respond to, particularly when it might be in conflict with other behavior. Human beings are born imitators, not only of behavior, but of the mindset behind it, as the research in mirror neurons has shown.

We respond to the totality of what people think, do, and communicate, and that’s a result of who they are. We can think of it as character, and it’s driven, we now know, by the story they tell ourselves.

Great leaders, such as Martin Luther King or Mahatma Ghandi, have always conveyed an aspirational narrative, motivating their followers to make the changes needed to achieve their vision of the future. While they often gave voice to their story, they also lived it.

Our personal narratives are a result of our life experiences and genetic disposition, but we can consciously change them, and that’s what all great leaders have done. It’s not giving into our whims, but having the strength of character to tell the story that works best for those we lead.

One person can make a huge difference in countless lives, a difference that ripples through decades. Choosing a decaying high school as his arena, Jonas was a great leader because he loved his calling and selflessly lived up to his responsibility to those in his charge. I never once saw him reading up on the latest tips and techniques.

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