On a recent night the girls and I were sitting around the dinner table. Our daughters were doing all the laughing. They were in stitches, describing some of the campaign speeches used by their peers in the pursuit of student office. I stared at the girls with a deadpan face because I saw no humor in their stories.
Apparently there is a distinct methodology for gaining office in student government at the high school: You've got to be funny, and you've got to be popular.
I have a different take on what leadership requires. It was only through an act of Congress that I became an officer in the Marines. It wasn't because I was popular. And there were many times when I walked the razor's edge between the weight of responsibility and the effects of insanity from that responsibility.
As a student of Latin, I learned about the solemnity placed upon the charge and responsibility of leadership. The Roman Republic called it the “Cursus Honorum,” the course of honor. Those who aspired to public office underwent a series of assessments to determine the honor or worth of their character. It was imperative that leaders of the Roman Republic have a certain gravitas. Public office was earned not only by deed but also by strength of moral fiber. The Romans understood that leadership is not a component of popularity; it's doing the right thing. So, I must have missed the part where leaders have to be funny.
There's a scene from “Glory” where Col. Matthew Gould Shaw, the commanding officer of the 54th Massachusetts, is promoting one of his soldiers to the rank of sergeant major. The responsibility entailed in this esteemed position is mind-boggling.
As the colonel confers the rank he says, “Congratulations, Sergeant Major.” The new sergeant major whispers in the colonel's ear, “Sir, I don't know if I want this.”
Colonel Shaw responds, whispering in the sergeant major's ear, “I know what you mean.”
Colonel Shaw and the sergeant major were killed at the battle for Fort Wagner.
Gravitas was one of the Roman virtues along with duty, dignity and character. They defined gravitas as heaviness, weight, a seriousness that denotes the acquisition of public office and subsequent responsibility. There was little levity in the Roman Senate. If we've learned anything relative to leadership it should be that vision, guts and gravitas are of the essence. We should ask ourselves who is most connected to other people's lives and who cares about making them better. Who inspires us? With such criteria in selecting leaders, we'll be able to face what comes our way.
Yeah, I already know you're going to hit me with, “Dr. Joe, lighten up, they're only in high school.”
Maybe I should lighten up. And I know they're just kids, but I've got this nagging assumption that trivializing leadership is a bad precedent. Do we allow children to meander through life following false gods? Perspective is often developed at 15 or 20. What you eventually become is what you cultivate at this moment.
Don't rely on popularity and humor as a means toward leadership. At best, popularity is an aphrodisiac that masks the essence of leadership and soon dissipates. What are you left with?
For crying out loud, if you want me to vote for you, don't make me laugh; inspire me.