Mental Wealth: Call yourself a leader?

Our resident psychologist asks aspiring leaders: are you radical enough to incite establishment murder plots?

Dr Nick Baylis: On leadership
Dr Nick Baylis: On leadership

Who inspires you and what qualities enable them to do so? At the Cheltenham Science Festival I publicly debated these questions with the British minister for universities and science.

Don’t worry, I pointed out that when I hear today’s politicians on the radio, their words always motivate me: I retune immediately to Radio 3. That’s not entirely a flippant remark: the self-determining action of the individual in the face of would-be leaders can be life-preserving. Let’s explore why. If inspiring leadership means motivating and guiding other individuals, then most people in charge are just managers – servants to the status quo.

There have, of course, been some genuine leaders who spearheaded transforming improvements. They stand out in modern history – Winston Churchill, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela – and in more domestic arenas – social entrepreneur Anita Roddick, educationalist Ken Robinson and football manager Alex Ferguson. They seem to have the following underpinning characteristics in common:

  • A background of impressive achievements seemingly conforming to the rules of the existing establishment.
  • A radical plan.
  • A willingness to be the figurehead and a vocation to muster support for radical transformation.
  • The self-confidence to stand apart and be counter-attacked by the establishment.
  • Gifts of verbal persuasion.

Let’s not muddle leaders with innovators. Einstein, Michelangelo, Marie Curie and Bill Gates were innovators but not leaders. Leaders actively prioritise changing the way the world does things. That carpenter from Nazareth would be a prime example.

The trouble with being a leader is that you pose a threat to the mainstream establishment and the puppet managers they’ve put in place. As a rule of thumb for aspiring leaders, if the establishment isn’t plotting to murder you, you’re probably not radical enough. When John F Kennedy became US president, he enacted several extraordinary ideas: that America should not be militarily involved in Vietnam, that Texas oil companies should pay a higher tax, that his vice-president Lyndon Johnson should be impeached for gross financial corruption and that the CIA should have its clandestine powers made more accountable to law, including its dealings with the mob. Recently released Federal records testify to all of these assertions.

JFK’s planned innovations led directly to several elements hurriedly conniving to shoot him in the head. It was such a public slaughter, one could be forgiven for thinking it was intended as a bloody example to anyone who might think about bucking the bullies who ran the system. 

Not everyone took the warning. Within five years two other inspiring voices – the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Senator Bobby Kennedy – had also been assassinated. But before we unequivocally mourn the mainstream’s assassination of true leaders, let’s remember that modern history’s greatest monsters, such as Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini, could rally many millions behind their madness.

Which is why as individuals, we must not relinquish our personal responsibility to guide and motivate ourselves toward creative, helpful action. It’s as straightforward but endless a task as raising our morale in difficult times and finding missions that are meaningful enough by our own heartfelt measuring stick that we turn off the digital gizmos and get cracking on the stuff that improves our warmest rapport with the real world around us.

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