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If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader. —John Quincy Adams

You have to be living under a rock not to know that the U.S. Supreme Court is about to hear two landmark cases on the legality of same-sex marriage. 

No matter how the Justices rule, this will be a turning point in U.S. history.

I of course have a preferred outcome, but so does everyone.

If I am to generalize, most people see this either as a justice matter or a protection issue. For me, it is about equality, but also about leadership.

What is the vision of America that we are casting?

Mind you, leadership is on my mind because in the last six months I have learned a lot about the suffering bad leadership can create.

This last week was particularly heinous, so I spent the weekend watching movies with a friend. Among the evening line-up was Ratatouille.

Here is the story. A rat named Remy wants to become a chef. He chases his dream inspired by his passion for food and encouragement from his mentor, Chef Gusteau, who’s mantra is that “anyone can cook.”

Before you start getting too concerned about why I am mentioning a rat, cooking and same-sex marriage in the same post, know this. After my harrowing experience with someone who exhibited few of the best traits for leaders, I have had to ask myself, do I really believe that anyone can lead? And what are the larger implications of leadership in people’s day-to-day lives?

This is what I’ve come up with so far.

Lesson 1

My first lesson comes from the other movie we watched – A Knight’s Tale. William Thatcher wants to be a knight, but knighthood is only for people of noble birth. He is consumed with “changing his stars” so that despite his peasant linage, he can distinguish himself as a knight.

In both movies, the main protagonists have aspirations for themselves that seem insurmountable, given the constraints.

The take-away? Leaders have to be just a little crazy. Not totally nuts, but crazy enough to hear beyond what society says and speak back.

They also have to be internally motivated and be able to encourage themselves, because blazing trails means you don’t get a roadmap.

Most people talk about this in terms of vision. All I am saying is that you have to know where you are working to go, even if no one else gets it.

Lesson 2

You have to be able to adjust–publicly. Just listen to Hillary Clinton here and then here. If you also haven’t heard she has completely changed her stance—from being against same-sex marriage to endorsing it.

Granted, she may have had this personal view all along and felt that it would not be “politically expedient” to support same-sex marriage at the time. Being a leader is always a delicate dance between your personal and public self. Not just the projections of the image, but the ramifications of not heeding the balance.

Let me be clear, by ‘adjust,’ I do not mean follow the polling data and change with the wind. What I mean, is be willing to change positions when you gather new insights and understandings.

This takes humility. As I get older, I become ever less expectant that people will look at the fallacies of their own arguments or the merits of their opponents.  People respect people who do.

Lesson 3

You have to have integrity. I mean integrity as in character and ethics, and not betraying the public trust like Jesse Jackson, Jr. But more than that, I am talking about having a core.

What is your dominant framework? 50 years from now, what will people be able to see is still true about your values?

Part of Hillary’s core is women’s rights. It is interwoven into everything she has ever pursued–through Wellesley, Yale, Arkansas, the White House, Senate and the State Department.

Lesson 4

You have to care.

Martin Luther King. Jr. is famous for saying that: “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

I agree that a service attitude is a critical ingredient for effective leadership. A leader who is so fixated on their position that they cannot see the people, is a travesty.

Lesson 5

Leaders have to know how to troubleshoot. They have to be able to see solutions and opportunity, where everyone else sees problems and perhaps even despair.

Here’s the catch. Most times the solutions are simple; the politics are complicated.

Take for example new evidence about what we can be doing to send low-income students to college. Will this happen? It depends. There are a lot of competing interests afoot. For every status quo, there are people who are empowered and those who are dis-empowered by it. Wrestling power away from people, even for the noblest of pursuits is always a tricky endeavor.

As this recent WashPost noted: 

“Maybe America’s accelerated “evolution” on gay marriage proves that the ultimate taboo in our society is redistribution. As Martin Luther King Jr. learned near the end, securing legal equality turned out to be the easy part. Nobody had to write a check. Equal opportunity and economic justice are entirely different matters, requiring a nation to take even bigger leaps of empathy and imagination.”

Lesson 6

You have to be multifaceted.

Different styles of leadership are needed for varying circumstance and periods of time. You need to have new innovative ideas, but you also need to have a historically grounded perspective.One must see everything in real time, in a larger context of patterns of societal change.

This can come from the same leader or from a leader who is wise enough to seek counsel from other leadership.

Lesson 7

There is a difference between leadership and being the leader—good leaders know this.

There will be many times when you are not the leader ‘per say,’ but you have to be prepared to display characteristics of leadership. You also have to appreciate the added value that people bring.

Part of this is understanding delegation, but it’s also about appreciating institutions. At the end of the day, yes, the 16 year-old boy from the UK who sold his phone app for millions is amazing.

Yet, where would he be without mechanisms for acquiring the capital and the patents to support his ideas? What if he didn’t have access to the book on reading computer code that opened this door to unexpected success?

Bottom Line?

So, maybe it’s indisputable there are certain qualities and behavioral traits that most leaders exhibit. These traits are not something that everyone possesses, but are something that people can aspire to learn.

In the end, I do think anyone can lead, but few would make that choice. Leadership takes risks not everyone is willing to shoulder.

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