Posted by: chrismaser | May 9, 2010


“As we evolve,” notes Sufi teacher Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, “we’re able to transform the situation and the people around us by helping them to fulfill their purpose. Our purpose is to enlist the purpose of other people. That is really the secret of leadership.”

A leader cannot keep personal values and beliefs out of the relationship with those he or she would lead; if one does, then leadership is vague and hollow. Although a leader must be willing to openly discuss the issue of values, to do so implies that one’s own philosophy and core values will at times be revealed, which must be done with total honesty and grace. I believe that while a leader has an obligation to expose their values in a dignified manner, that same leader has an ethical obligation to refrain from imposing them on others.

Leadership is not meant to be a form of indoctrination whereby the leader manipulates the people at large to act or feel in the “right” or “politically correct” way. Each person’s truth is just that: each person’s individual sense of truth. But no one knows what is right or true for anyone else. Good leadership therefore requires a great deal of humility because, as George Bernard Shaw instructs us: “We are made wise not by the recollection of our past but by the responsibility of our future.”

Unfortunately, there are many well-intentioned leaders who are overzealous in “straightening people out,” which implies that, by virtue of their greater wisdom, they will provide the answers to the troubled populace. But leadership is not synonymous with preaching, which is not to say that a leader should simply accept whatever the people say by remaining passive and silent.

One of a leader’s duties is to challenge the values of the citizenry. When a leader senses that certain behavior is unwise or destructive, that it is stealing freedom of choice from generations of the future, it becomes the leader’s duty to confront the people and invite them to examine the payoffs and consequences of their choices and actions, because those choices and actions affect not only themselves but also their children and grandchildren in the present and the children as yet unborn.

A core issue in leadership is the degree to which and the way in which a leader’s values enter into their relationship with the public. Although a leader clearly has personal values and goals, it is totally inappropriate to foist them off on the public. Leadership is about accepting and giving counsel in order to arrive at mutually acceptable and sustainable decisions; it is not about dictatorship, which is no more that blatant power mongering.

An ethically sensitive leader is aware of their own values and encourages their followers to develop their own. A leader, however, must challenge the values of their followers and help them decide whether they are truly living by their professed values or merely espousing perceived parental and societal values without consciously evaluating them. Leaders must also be alert to the possibility of manipulating the citizenry into uncritically accepting values wholesale and thereby simply becoming a substitute for a parent, something too many people today already expect their leaders and government to be.

At this juncture, it is important to emphasize that no person can hold in their mind a neutral thought. Hence, no person can be truly objective. Because a leader’s personal values do in fact influence their relationships with the people at large, it is crucial for a leader to be absolutely clear about their values and how they influence both their work and the future into which they would lead the people.

People both need to and have a right to know where their leaders stand on values and issues in order to test their own thinking. People deserve forthright and honest involvement on the part of their leaders. Because leaders themselves do not have all of the answers, leadership must be a process whereby the people are challenged to honestly evaluate their own values and then decide for themselves which direction they want their future to take, albeit the will of the majority rules in a true democracy. But how, you might ask, in all of this does a leader deal with personal needs?

Just as leaders cannot exclude their own values from their relationships with the people at large, neither can they hope to keep their personal needs, and thus their personalities, separate from those whom they lead. Leaders must recognize the supreme importance of becoming consciously aware of their personal needs; areas of unfinished emotional business, most often related to their upbringing; potential personal conflicts; defensive coping mechanisms; and their sense of vulnerability. They must realize how these personal realities might prevent their followers from freely and fully exploring certain dimension of themselves.

Unless a leader develops this conscious self-awareness, they will obstruct the ways in which followers can change or will use followers to satisfy personal needs. Leadership then shifts from what is best for the people to what is best for the leader. The crux of the matter is to avoid exploiting the people for the sake of meeting the personal needs of the leader.

Here one might ask what kind of personal awareness is crucial. We all have blind spots and distortions of reality. It is therefore a leader’s responsibility, both personally and to the people whom they serve, to work continually toward expanding self-awareness with the aim of recognizing areas of personal distortion, bias, prejudice, and vulnerability. It is particularly important that a leader become increasingly aware of the nature of unfinished emotional business that might come to the fore in their relationship with those who follow. To accomplish this, one must consciously, purposefully do what Carl Jung called one’s “inner work.”

A leader must develop sensitivity to unmet personal needs so that leadership is not used as a means to satisfy those needs. If a leader both recognizes and works through their own personality problems, there is less chance of projecting them onto the ordinary citizenry with whom they works. A good leader must recognize that their effectiveness depends on their ability to create and maintain sound personal relationships and that personal problems may interfere with those relationships.

As Gerald Corey says of psychotherapists, leaders have other aspects of their personalities that must be examined it they hope to be instrumental in using themselves to create healing relationships. These aspects include the need for control and power; the need to be nurturing and helpful; the need to change others in the direction of their own values; the need to teach, preach, persuade, and suggest; the need to feel adequate, particularly when it becomes overly important that the people confirm one’s competence as a leader; and the need to be respected and appreciated.

Such needs are neither neurotic nor necessarily destructive, asserts Corey, but they must be kept in a healthy perspective if their needs are to be met by helping others find satisfaction in their own lives. Many of a person’s needs for dignity, self-worth, and respect come from the quality of their relationships with those with whom they works. If they do not derive deep satisfaction from their work, then it is likely they is in the wrong profession.1

For this reason, ethical leadership demands that a leader recognize the central importance of continuously probing their own depths to determine in which direction their personality is leading their constituency—toward betterment or stagnation.

Series on Qualities Of Leadership:

• Characteristics Of An Effective Leader

• Characteristic-1: Other-Centered And Authentic

• Characteristic-2: An Honorable Person

• Characteristic-3: Balancing The Masculine And Feminine

• Characteristic-4: A Therapeutic Person

• Characteristic-5: Detachment And Equanimity

• Characteristic-6: Being A Good Follower

• Characteristic-7: Servant Leadership

• Characteristic-8: Sharing Leadership

• Characteristic-9: Willingness To Delegate Authority

• Characteristic-10: Encourages Leadership In Others


  1. The preceding two paragraphs are based on: Gerald Corey. Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy (3rd ed.). Brooks/Cole Publishing Co., Monterey, CA. (1986).

Text © by Chris Maser 2010. All rights reserved.

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This article is excerpted from my 1998 book, Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Development. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, FL. 235 pp. It is updated in my 2012 book, Decision Making For A Sustainable Environment: A Systemic Approach. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. If you want more information about this book, want to purchase it, or want to contact me—visit my website.

If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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