How often have you heard something like the following?
—I’m a doer. I don’t spend time on books or academic thinking or intellectual stuff. That’s just a distraction from getting things done.
—I’m a thinker. I don’t want to waste my time working with people who aren’t worth my time. I’ll leave that to public relations types and politicians.
—I’m a communicator. All the great ideas in the world don’t mean a thing if you can’t express them in a way that persuades others. It doesn’t just happen.
What about you?
As a leader, do you view yourself primarily as a thinker or talker or doer?
Thomas Jefferson’s Challenge
Thomas Jefferson offers a timeless example—and challenge.
Shortly before his death in his mid-80s, looking toward his legacy, Jefferson designed his own tombstone.
What would Jefferson select, when pressed to distill his life’s work into something comparable to a Tweet?
Few individuals have had more accomplishments linked to their name. He had been a Virginia state legislator, a member of Congress, minister to France, vice president and then president of the United States.
Jefferson looked past all of those. He even placed the presidency and the Louisiana Purchase to the side.
Instead, he chose three achievements based on creating and communicating ideas: author of the Declaration of Independence and of the statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.
What do you think of Jefferson’s judgment of his greatest service rendered?
Who’s the Leader?
It’s often said that leadership is not a position. It’s about influence.
In the Internet era, this observation may well be more apt than ever before. Yet it’s really been true for time immemorial.
Jesus Christ, William Shakespeare, Karl Marx
What do these three disparate individuals have in common?
For all their differences, each has profoundly influenced the lives of millions, reaching across time and space. In the case of Jesus Christ and Karl Marx, many purport to act in the name of their philosophies. Many more experience the world refracted through the prism of their ideas, often unaware of the source.
Whom would you regard to be more consequential, a dictator in China or Venezuela who acts in the name of Karl Marx, or Marx himself?
Martin Luther King, Jr., Lyndon Johnson
Some years back there was a spirited political argument: Who deserves more credit for enactment of the American civil rights laws of the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson or the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.?
President Johnson was surely a doer. As recounted by Robert Caro, LBJ applied legislative mastery and legerdemain to break through longstanding congressional resistance to civil rights legislation. If any politician was indispensable to this overdue breakthrough, it was Johnson.
Dr. King was the indispensable spiritual leader. His effectiveness as a communicator was extraordinary. He not only altered the public consciousness, but he also held together a fractious political coalition.
And there were various thinkers whose ideas played out in the civil rights revolution. They ranged from the authors of the Declaration of Independence (Jefferson did not draft it alone), to Lincoln and W.E.B. Du Bois and Gandhi and others.
Surely we can recognize that each of these individuals played a major leadership role. Indeed, more than one can be viewed as indispensable. Yet it took all of their efforts to see through a major change in how America saw itself in the context of our animating ideals.
Same Sex Marriage
Less than two decades ago, same-sex marriage was a political albatross. Its prospect would reliably rouse many voters to the polls in spirited opposition.
Now, with unprecedented speed, it’s moving toward general public acceptance.
Though politicians will, in their inimitable way, claim credit for this development, it would be overly generous to call their contribution tangential.
The change was initially spearheaded by polemicists, notably Andrew Sullivan. Then it was swept up within rising acceptance of declared homosexuals in American life, reflected in and advanced by television and other popular culture. So, too, the velocity of change may have been accelerated by the simultaneous rise of the Internet age and social media.
It all brings to mind Shelley’s timeless injunction: Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
Perhaps now we can acknowledge them.
As Lincoln said, “Whoever molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes, or pronounces judicial decisions.”
If you aim to advance the next round of political and cultural change in America, do you assume that running for office is the only way—or the most efficacious path—to follow?
Thinkers and Talkers and Doers — What About You?
When you think of leadership, how do you value the respective roles of thinkers and talkers and doers?
How do you regard your own contribution? Do you focus on one area to the exclusion of others?
Does your contribution remain locked in one category, irrespective of circumstances? Or are you willing to serve in various capacities, as needed?
Are you prepared to serve in different ways at different stages of your life?
Do you feel that your contribution is limited by perceptions—your own or others’—that your value is limited to one category?
Do you categorize others’ contributions in ways that expand their capacities or limit them?
Surveying the leadership challenges and opportunities before you now, How Can You Best Serve?
Thinkers and Talkers and Doers