American newspaper commentator Walter Lippmann defined leaders as “the custodians of a nation’s ideals, the beliefs it cherishes, of its permanent hopes, of the faith which makes a nation out of a mere aggregation of individuals.”
Custodians. The word means a keeper, a guardian, or a caretaker. It is a proactive word that implies action on the part of the bearer. Custodians hold something in trust on behalf of others. It is not a behavior motivated out of self-interest.
A custodian then, is an individual who upholds what is best for all people even if it may not be in their own interest to do so. A custodial role must be approached as a temporary role, preserving something greater than the self—principles of enduring and lasting value. This is an attitude of mind that focuses on the task at hand and not on what the leader may gain from the position. It implies a caring and concerned relationship between leaders and followers; individuals motivated by their constituents’ best interests.
This idea seems at odds with what we see happening around us today. In all too many arenas, we see many of our leaders holding nothing in trust for those they purport to serve but advancing only their own ideals and hopes.Today, it is often difficult to tell if our leaders are serving themselves or us. And it is all too common to find leaders simply helping themselves to privilege and power. Mismanagement, deceit, greed, and frying-pan-into-the-fire problem solving all beg the question, “Where are our leaders leading?” “To whom can we look to for the direction we need?” Is Lippmann’s statement merely an idealistic, unrealizable dream?
Choosing Service Over Self-interest
Throughout time, leaders who have exhibited the proper kind of custodianship—leaders who have sought service over self-interest—have been held in high regard. We gladly look to them for direction and guidance in times of indecision, turmoil and trouble.
One such custodian stood out in the Fifth century BC. The Roman army was surrounded. The country was in need of a leader who would seize the moment and turn the situation defeat into victory. They called upon a man who was out plowing his field, a farmer. He came. He saw. He conquered. He went home. Cincinnatus gained fame for his selfless devotion to his country. This half-legendary hero of the Roman Republic gave his all in a time of crisis and then gave up the reins of power when the task was done and went back to his plow.
In more modern times, America’s first President, George Washington, considered “the Father of his Country,” provides a paramount example of this same kind of custodial leadership that Lippmann espoused.
Washington was an aristocratic gentleman farmer of distinctive character. When called upon to defend the interests of a fledgling nation as Commander in Chief of the Revolutionary Army during the American War of Independence, he rose to the challenge and persevered against all odds. Then, after eight and a half years of being the most powerful man in America, he resigned his commission and returned to his agricultural pursuits.
Not surprisingly, he became the reluctant, yet automatic and unanimous choice for the first president of the United States. He served two terms. His final and perhaps greatest act of service to his country was that like Cincinnatus, who he had often been compared to by his contemporaries, he stopped serving and retired back to his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia.
Washington is remembered for his strength of character and discipline, his loyal patriotism, his principled leadership and selfless devotion to public duty. He held in trust for the American people the very values and beliefs that made their nation possible without regard for his own gain.
In reality, true leadership is and has always been a selfless action. It involves taking yourself out of the picture and considering the needs of others. It is a way of thinking that takes other people into account even when your own needs are pressing. It asks what is right or best in the wider interest. Few would doubt the need for more leaders like Cincinnatus and George Washington today. Leaders who will complete the job they were asked to do without regard for themselves; leaders who will lead and not merely register the popular will of the people. Yet it would be difficult to build a consensus as to how a leader might do that; how a leader might be a custodian of or hold in trust a nation’s or a groups values and beliefs.
How might we answer this question in a world that has seemingly grown unmanageable? Today our world is faced with serious, even life-threatening problems of a global nature. Where will we find the wisdom necessary that might be applied to modern civilization’s most pressing dilemmas?
Leadership Is Everyone’s Business
Clearly, leadership is an issue that affects all of us. Not only are we impacted by it, but also, we are all called upon to exercise it. Whether we are called upon to be involved in leading government or business, guiding young minds, leading a family, standing for what is right, or organizing a dinner, a carpool, or a household, everyone has a leadership role to play. We are each thrust into many different leadership roles again and again, throughout our lives. We are each called upon to be custodians of what is right and good, lasting and of value, for those in our care.
Surprisingly, this idea of custodianship even runs through the writings of the Renaissance writer often thought to be one of the most cynical yet most observant political thinkers of all time, Niccolò Machiavelli. Machiavelli insisted that leadership was virtuous only if the good of the community was sought out and achieved above all else. A good leader, in other words, was a steward of the community….
Sorry friends, but that’s all we can take for today on Michael McKinney’s article. We continue Tomorrow. Nonetheless, I hope this bit made an impact on you, because it did on me the very first time I read it. I’ll be expecting you tomorrow. Ciao
NOTE: This article is belongs to Michael McKinney and is in no way mine