Mayor Suthers spoke on leadership at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs on March 9.
UCCS Leadership Speech
Thank you for the invitation to join you this afternoon and to address a very important group of people. Present in the room today are people who have already achieved important positions in our community and others who will undoubtedly be an important part of the future leadership of our community. The fact that many of you are public safety professionals indicates that your future leadership will significantly impact the health, safety, and welfare of our citizens. Given your important role in our community I am honored to be asked to talk to you about the subject of leadership.
I want to ensure at the outset that you understand that I don't claim any particular expertise on the topic of leadership. I've never written a book about it and I've never taught seminars about it. But I have held a number of leadership positions and over the years I've made a lot of observations about leadership. Many of these observations are certainly not unique. You've heard them before. But other observations I have may give you a little different slant on aspects of leadership.
My first observation has to do with how leaders are created. Based on my experience, I'm convinced that leaders are made, not born. You've heard the expression that so-and-so is a "born leader". But what I think those folks are really saying is that an individual has physical or personality characteristics that make it easier for them to be a leader. But those characteristics don't guarantee that an individual will be a good leader. Some people are blessed with good looks or charismatic personalities that are very conducive to leadership. Others of us or not. But that doesn't mean we can't become good leaders.
Because ultimately leadership requires hard work, or else it doesn't count for much. If you are vested with leadership simply because of your name or your station in life you won't necessarily become a good leader. The world is full of talented failures and unfulfilled genius. Good leadership comes from establishing credibility and that typically comes from effective performance over time. Effective leadership almost always involves a certain amount of dues paying. Think back to your high school days. The freshman class president is usually the one with the best personality. The senior class president is the one that has merited the trust of his or her fellow students over the course of four years. That’s typically how people earn leadership positions.
It's my observation that good leaders are calculated risk takers and competitors and understand there is much to be gained from the effort, even if you're unsuccessful. Whether in electoral politics, or corporate or organizational politics, taking on a leadership role often involves sticking your neck out. Please keep in mind that while I’m talking today about political leadership, I am using the term “political” in its broadest context. Because politics is about how people collectively achieve objectives. Ultimately, all organizational leadership is political leadership. One of my favorite quotes is from Teddy Roosevelt. "Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, though your efforts be checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much because they linger in the grey twilight that knows not victory nor defeat." What's required is that you handle yourself in competition for leadership positions in a way that impresses people and furthers your credibility and not in a way that will serve to disqualify you from future opportunities. I've only lost in one of my six campaigns for public office, when I ran for Attorney General in 1998 and lost by a very narrow margin. But I can tell you that I learned more from that experience than from all the elections I won and thankfully I handled myself in such a way that I remained a viable candidate for a variety of leadership positions in the future, including Attorney General.
I told you that good leaders are calculated risk takers and engage in realistic goal setting. They understand that setting and achieving short-term goals set you up for the achievement of longer-term goals. I think realistic goal setting is very important in the development of leaders and I include career goal setting in that. Bill Clinton may have decided in eighth grade that he wanted to be president of the United States but for most of us it simply doesn't work that way. I think my life is a pretty good example of how it typically works. (Explain)
I also believe sustained effective leadership requires personal balance and emotional support. That's why leaders should never lose sight of life's priorities-and that often means relationships. You should always seek positions of responsibility that are consistent with your personal, family and financial obligations in life. I've watched many people, particularly in politics, destroy relationships because they sought positions that undermined the financial or emotional security of those relationships. That’s why I believe it’s important for people in leadership positions to have a well ordered personal life and have access to emotional support from friends and family as they face the significant challenges leadership can bring.
I’ve also found significant confusion about what true leadership entails. I’ve encountered some people, particularly in politics, that think leadership is simply figuring out what your constituents want, or members of your organization want and trying to achieve it. They’ve always got their finger in the wind and are prepared to advocate for whatever the majority seems to want. Based on my experience, that’s not what good leaders do. Leaders are not mere poll takers. Real leadership involves in many instances convincing your constituents what they ought to want. (Examples, Mayor, Police Chief) Cognitive dissonance is a reality leaders have to confront. Cognitive dissonance is people wanting two contradictory things at the same time – i.e. more government services and lower taxes. The job of an effective leader is to shepherd them through a realistic prioritization process. In perhaps the greatest single essay on American politics, Federalist Paper No. 10. James Madison wrote “the purpose of delegating decision making to a small number of citizens chosen by the rest is to allow them to refine and enlarge the public view and add deliberation and reason to that view. What is essential is leaders sustained by the people’s support, but insulated from their merely momentary inclinations. Leaders who have the opportunity to transcend the maelstrom of various private interests and engage in the deliberation and judgment necessary to achieve the public good.”
I've mentioned the word credibility several times already. Effective leadership requires credibility. The people you lead must trust you to act in the best interest of those you lead. And herein lies a stark reality that limits the number of people who can become effective leaders. You see, credibility does not flow automatically from hard work and preparation. Credibility does not emerge from calculation or strategic sessions. Credibility emerges from character. It is expressed in qualities of an individual, not in the quantity of their time and effort. Character and credibility are essential to effective leadership. As character and resulting credibility fades from the discourse of American leaders, a sinister plague of hyperbole and untruth threatens our country's health and well-being.
I hope that all of you have also come to the conclusion that character and effective leadership are inseparable. I guess that I could hypothesize a scenario where a person of poor character could, on the basis of his own self-interest, assume a leadership role on a short-term basis. I suspect Hitler would be my prime example. You might even get elected President of the United States without getting high marks for character. But getting elected and leading are different tasks. It is apparent to me that sustained and truly effective leadership in a position of high responsibility is typically province of people of good character.
In exploring the topic of the role of character in good leadership I would like to share with you two closely related concepts, neither of which are new and neither of which originate with me. The first is that of the "virtuous citizen" first discussed by Greek philosophers. And the second is the concept of "obedience to the unenforceable", a phrase first coined by an English judge named John Fletcher Multon, about a century ago. I believe that these concepts are extremely pertinent to discussion of character and leadership in the 21st-century. In fact, I do not believe that an American, blessed to live in a nation which affords tremendous personal freedom, can be a person of good character without being a virtuous citizen who is obedient to the unenforceable. Let me explain.
Since the days of Plato and Aristotle, our greatest thinkers understood that effective self-governance is wholly dependent upon a law-abiding citizenry; what these political theorists call a "virtuous citizenry." Now virtue is a word that may make some of you nervous. We should clarify its meaning as a political term. Virtuous citizenry does not require the sanctity of Mother Theresa of Calcutta or St. Francis of Assisi. Very few of us can achieve that. Rather, it simply requires a recognition of the importance of acting responsibly in your own interests, in the interests of your family, and in the interest of the community as a whole. The virtuous citizen exercises both civic and personal responsibility. As I indicated, America's form of government, to be effective, requires the vast majority of its citizens to be virtuous in that context. If you will reflect for a moment, that is not necessarily the case with other forms of government. The continued existence of a dictatorship may depend on the virtue of the dictator, but not on that of the citizenry. So to a successful monarchy depends on the virtue of the monarch. But in a free society such as ours, virtuous citizens in the legislature, the executive branch, the judiciary, the ballot box, the classroom, the corporate suite, the job site, and the church pulpit, are absolutely essential. And to the extent that our American society today is not virtuous enough, the political framework of our society is threatened.
The institutional structure of the United States of America, as engineered by the founders of this country, is wholly dependent upon civic virtue on the part of its lawmakers and its law enforcers, and it will generate beyond recognition if civic virtue is not continually nurtured and celebrated. Plato said that "the community suffers a little if its cobblers have become degenerate and pretentious, but if the guardians of the law and of the state who alone have the opportunity to bring good government and prosperity become a mere sham, then the community is ruined." Aristotle pointed out that the key to producing virtuous citizens is to teach children "habits of the heart". Virtuous citizenry learned early in life becomes a matter of habitual reflex rather than premeditated action.
Virtuous citizens do the right thing, because it's the right thing, regardless of whether anybody notices, and therein lies an excellent segue into this closely related notion of "obedience to the unenforceable." In his writings, John Fletcher Multon divided human action into three domains. First is the domain of the law, where he said our actions are prescribed by laws binding upon us which must be obeyed. If we do not, the government will impose whatever consequences are necessary to coerce obedience. If you commit murder, you go to jail. If you don't pay your taxes, you suffer the consequences. But simply obeying the law to avoid the consequences of violating it, is not an act of good character, but rather of self-preservation.
The other extreme is the domain of free choice, which he said includes all those actions as to which we claim and enjoy complete freedom. No one suffers much consequence by the choices we make. No one cares much if I wear a red tie instead of a blue one. No one cares if you choose Colgate rather than Crest to brush your teeth. Good character is certainly not essential in this domain.
But in between the domain of the law and the domain of free choice, Judge Multon identified a domain in which our actions are not determined by law, but in which we should also not be free to behave in any way we choose, because of the consequences of our actions to ourselves and to those around us. In this domain, we act with greater or lesser freedom from constraint on a continuum which extends at one extreme from consciousness of duty, which is nearly as strong as the written law, to the other extreme which is viewed simply as good form appropriate in a given situation. Examples of actions on this continuum would include such infractions as adultery. No longer an act of criminal offense, but an act which has significant personal and societal ramifications. Or lying about your age to get into a movie for a cheaper price, or to secure a cheaper ski lift ticket. Seemingly not matters of much consequence, but ones that are at the root of good character. Matters that can profoundly influence the character development of your children that witness them. Lord Multon considered this area of action lying between the law and pure personal preference to be the domain of obedience to the unenforceable. The obedience in this domain is the obedience imposed by man upon himself and not by any external authority. It is your performance in the domain of obedience to the unenforceable that determines your character. Obeying the law to avoid the consequences of disobedience does not make you a person of good character. But doing the right thing because it’s the right thing, regardless of whether anyone notices, is the essence of good character. Multon observed that the more civilized and enlightened a community of people are, the greater their dependence on the voluntary respect and support of the people for law and civil order. Ultimately, the rule of law depends upon the morality of people. Obedience to the unenforceable is required to give the rule of law the power of enforcement which is its essential character.
John Silber, The former president of Boston University, in a famous commencement address at Harvard, suggested that there is a serious decline in obedience to the unenforceable in today's America. He believes that television in combination with family dysfunction is the societal force most responsible for such decline. He suggested that television has become the most important educational institution in America and believes that the morays portrayed on primetime television have reinforced the notion that because no significant consequence attaches to various sexual and antisocial behaviors, the formative potential of the church, family and school to develop Virtuous citizens has been seriously eroded. Poorly parented children are especially vulnerable to this moral corruption. Silber is convinced, and I suggest we all should be, that the future of our country, our future happiness, and that of our children, depends decisively on whether we as individuals and collectively as a people have the fortitude to resist unhealthy cultural trends and to nurture civic virtue and practice obedience to the unenforceable. Sadly enough, demonstrating the type of character necessary for good leadership today often requires you to be somewhat countercultural. Our society today values celebrity over genuine achievement. And as we know, celebrity often stems from questionable character.
I believe the great challenge of America's third century is to reestablish through our families, our churches and our schools an understanding on the part of each of us of the extent to which the survival of our great nation depends on the virtue of its citizenry. We cannot allow ourselves to become too pessimistic. Americans have traditionally shown a great capacity for self-renewal. This nation is full of good people and good families. While the social problems we face may seem immense and overwhelming, I assure you that each one of us can be a part of the solution. In fact we must be part of the solution, for evil will flourish if good men and women do nothing. A community is a virtuous when the individuals who comprise it are virtuous. A well-ordered personal life promotes a well ordered family life, and a well ordered family life promotes a well ordered state. The solution begins with each and every one of us doing everything we can in our own world, in our own jobs, in our own churches, in our own schools, and most importantly in our own families, to promote civic virtue and obedience to the unenforceable. That's what people of good character do. That's what good leaders do.
I was asked to say a word about crisis leadership. Quite simply exercising leadership based on good character will help prepare you for crisis leadership. Crisis leadership involves acquiring adequate knowledge to act in a crisis, engaging in adequate preparation, and understanding your proper role in the event of a crisis. The effective leader in crisis will calmly and deliberately play the assigned role as well as possible. He or she will not seek the limelight but at the same time will not shrink from the responsibility that comes with your leadership position. It's a crisis that typically exposes a leader as good or bad. You can't be a good leader unless you can effectively lead in a crisis.
Thank you again for the opportunity to join you this afternoon and share some of my observations about leadership. As I said at the outset, I’m certain that in this room today are leaders that will play a major role in the future of our great city. I hope I’ve given you some things to think about in regard to the role of character in leadership.