A few days ago, I was watching a TV show on my laptop. Before then, I have heard a lot of fascination about ABC’s new drama Scandal, and this past week, a friend strongly suggested I gave the show a look. So out of forced curiosity, I did.
While watching the final episode of the first season, one of the central characters of the show, a presidential aide, made a profound statement that I thought echoed a big part of my feeling on leadership. You see, in this episode, the president of the United States was struggling with what the ethics of his office demands and matters of his own personal happiness. He was going to have to choose an end; because pursuing both ends simultaneously was not an option. It was then, while sitting outside the president’s office, that the aforementioned aide made his remark: “Some men are not meant to be happy, they are meant to be great.”
This, for me, is an unglamorous truth about leadership—especially for the leader that would be great.
I can’t say how many times I’ve run into men and women, who wish that others would follow them, who wax poetic about their determination to leave a legacy…to change the course of humanity for good. But then, what I also often see in these folks is the ambiguousness to pay the hefty price that leadership requires. Sacrificing personal happiness for the communal good is easier said than done.
A lot of things are harmless. But not a lot of things are expedient. A leader that would be great must recognize that he or she is no longer an “anybody” but a “somebody” and as such loses all the privileges that come with being a private citizen. I’m sure the president of the United States wishes he could go out for a stroll, in Washington, D.C., on a beautiful Thursday evening, like the many residents of the city would. But he cannot, if he truly respects the people he serves and cares for their wellbeing. The president may not move about in the open without protracted security service which in turn will create massive traffic headaches, not to mention the many people jostling to catch a glimpse of the man and the mayhem that creates. He, in essence, becomes a prisoner of his office. A leader who is yet to come to terms with such an existence limits his effectualness and how great he can be.
Very often, it’s not about whether a thing is legal or not…but the appearance of a thing, how it may be perceived—that should matter most to a leader. Yes, a leader should be prepared to go against popular sentiment, but he also must be quick to gauge the cost of his action. A community leader in Colorado cannot say because marijuana has been legalized by voters in his state, let himself be openly photographed smoking a joint. Yes, it is legal, but how effectual can he be be with those followers in his state who do not agree it should be legal in the first place. Or the majority of the country (where marijuana use is still largely illegal), were he to perchance have a national pulpit someday?
A leader who has been called and created for a higher purpose no longer belongs to himself or herself.
A leader that would be great is forever saddled with the responsibility of looking out for the present and the future, of being a leader of all peoples, for all peoples. And that, many times, means foregoing those yearned private moments of happiness. It is the reason why so many are called, but only a few are chosen. The reason why in our long and vexed history, we remember only a few men and women as truly being great.