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Leaders Always Laugh at Themselves

An address to the 2011 Omicron Delta Kappa initiates on November 11, 2011

Leadership is one of those topics that are very hard to talk about, not because there is nothing to say, rather, because there is so much to say and because so much has already been said, over thousands of years.

As far back as Plato’s Republic or Plutarch’s Lives, philosophers and psychologists have tried to determine the core characteristics of leadership. 

Since then, hundreds of studies have been done, hoping to distinguish between leaders and non-leaders (or what we might call followers). The list of leadership qualities includes intelligence, charisma, dominance, adaptability, persistence, integrity, self-confidence, and empathy, to name but a few.

While focus on leaders’ characteristics generated the prevailing “trait theory of leadership,” which articulated several key traits leaders have in common, researchers began to notice that leadership was situational—events determine the leader, rather than leaders controlling events. In other words, circumstances rather than characteristics accounted for leadership.

It wasn’t long before the situational (or great event) theories also proved inadequate, such that “trait theory” reemerged in the form of “style theory,” which postulated a taxonomy of behaviors based upon personality and well-developed egos. From style theory, researchers have bounced around from “functional theory,” to “transactional theory,” to “process theory,” to a host of other theories that attempt to define leaders and leadership. 

It turns out that this business of defining either leaders or leadership is as exhausting as it is inconclusive. So, where does that leave us? What can I possibly add to the enormous collection of definitions and theories already extant on leadership?

The short answer is: not much. I could try, but I can’t really tell you what constitutes leadership, not without trafficking in trite generalities and banal aphorisms. And you don’t really need me to tell you about leadership anyway, since you are all here to be honored as leaders. Let’s stipulate that you all have characteristics that are special, that make others want to take your lead.

But while I am not sure just what got you to this point, I can tell you one thing you will need as a leader, something that all leaders need to stay out in front of the pack, and that is a sense of humor about the mistakes you make.

If you cannot laugh at yourself, at your mistakes (and there will be many), you will not be a leader for long.

After all, “mistakes,” as James Joyce observed, “are the portals to discovery.” Embrace them as the opportunities they are. Indeed, trying to avoid mistakes may be the biggest mistake you will make. 

We all make mistakes, but leaders make amends, which they do by keeping those mistakes in perspective, by recognizing that few mistakes are as serious as they seem at the point of infraction.

I am not advocating the nihilistic view that nothing matters, instead, that things rarely matter as much as we think at the time they go wrong.

I cannot help but recall a meeting of twenty people that I greeted with the question, “So who called this meeting?” only to find out that I had.

Or the lunch I arranged for fifteen members of the faculty and a guest speaker who, unfortunately, was the only person I forgot to invite.

Or how about when I challenged this campus to go paperless and assumed the students would love me for it. 

It is at times like these that we have to laugh at ourselves, take ownership of our missteps and (if possible) use humor to turn them into happy memories. 

When I think of what I wish for you as leaders, it is that you will maintain your sense of humor. To that end, I wish you all good luck.

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