Leadership: For-Show, or For-Real?

Do we lead as good shepherds … or simply as hired hands?

“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me…and I lay down my life for the sheep. ( John 10: 11-15)

Today’s post departs from my usual focus on business leadership to examine political leadership in the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s massive destruction in New York and New Jersey.  My comments reflect not the sentiments of any political party or ideology, but rather a deep disappointment with what I observe to be a failing of leadership from many quarters—as many succumbed to style over substance.

The Approaching Storm

As Hurricane Sandy approached, leadership at the local, city, and state levels seemed to do a very good job getting the word out to the people.  And then, when the storm hit as hard (or even harder) than expected, political leaders were everywhere to be seen—holding hourly press conferences, surveying the storm damage, and generally maintaining everyone’s spirits with calm pronouncements, heartfelt compassion, and a palpable presence.

At the worst of times, political leaders rose to the challenge and showed their finest colors.  For 24, or 48, or 72-hours, it was inspiring to watch. Resources were marshaled, hope was spread, and there was a clear sense of direction, engagement, and can-do, we’ll-repair-and-rebuild, by-your-side-every-step-of-the-way leadership.

And then a funny thing happened… as the days passed, and  the tv spotlights started to dim, the politicians–who seemed to be everywhere only days before–suddenly became harder and harder to find.  This is natural, you might say: “Life goes on.  We have to return to normal.”  Fair enough—except, the job wasn’t done.  Tens of thousands or more were still without power, waiting in the cold, stranded and forgotten –without even an estimate of when they might be able to return to their homes.  Gas lines persisted; rationing continued … but leadership largely disappeared.

Leaders who had proclaimed “we’ll-keep-at-it-until-every-last-light-is-turned-back-on” suddenly seemed passive and unengaged.  Titans who days before could move heaven and earth were now flummoxed by details of not having enough electricians to certify that damaged homes could handle the power that was ready to be sent their way and generators never quite made it to those who needed them .  The people suffered, and leaders were invisible.


It was a massive storm, and it only makes sense that it would take extraordinary effort to restore and rebuild.  Hundreds of thousands of people –first responders, tree crews, electrical linemen, and the like—answered the call of duty and performed selflessly and courageously.  Of our most visible leaders, though, I’m not sure the same can be said.

The question for leaders that this brings to mind is, do I lead for-real … or for-show?  Am I a good shepherd—a servant-leader who puts my people first, and who stays with the task until it is done? Or, am I superficial leader who is brilliant in front of a camera and shines through a photo-op, but who shrinks from view once the lights dim?  Let us hope that more of our leaders (political, business, and otherwise) rise to the challenge of the former rather than the later.

Post Script

I had never heard of Joe Lhota and John Samuelson before I saw their names in the New York Post the other day.  These gentlemen (the chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York and the head of the Transport Workers Union local, respectively) apparently are responsible for restoring subway service (the heartbeat of New York) far quicker than possibly imagined in the wake of the storm.  I don’t believe that they were on tv around the clock (if at all).  They just led their forces and got the job done…and stayed with the task until it was truly done.  Servant-leadership, indeed.  Deep appreciation to these men, and all leaders like them.

One response to “Leadership: For-Show, or For-Real?

  1. Great thoughts on leadership. It often seems that camera crews lead politicians.

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