leadership is not a popularity contest

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A few months ago, I had lunch with a long time friend of mine I hadn’t seen in years. Growing up, this particular friend had the reputation of being one of the shyest and meekest souls around. He rarely spoke. He never raised his hand in class. By all accounts, he was a hermit. Leadership was never something he had any interest in or much of a knack for. This friend told me that he’d been made the team captain for his local basketball team. It was, I could only imagine, the only leadership role he’d ever had in his life.

Apparently, a decision had to be made regarding the team’s jerseys, which resulted in several dissenting opinions. My friend vented to me over his frustration with keeping the team happy, while at the same time, accommodating those players with modest budgets. Trivial matters, to be sure, but the conversation lead to some interesting observations regarding the nature of great leaders—the first, and perhaps most glaring being, that great leaders are almost always out of favor with someone.

I don’t think that any American child has passed through the public school system without studying the Boston Massacre at least once, but few seem to know much about the impending trial that followed. In March of 1770, an enraged Boston colony called for the blood of the British soldiers involved in the event. Accounts from Samuel Adams and John Handcock, along with an infamous engraving from Paul Revere proved damning to any hopes these men had of a fair and impartial trial. Captain Thomas Patterson and his eight soldiers were insistent that they were harassed by a mob and that they acted only in self-defense. No defense lawyer would touch the case.

Finally, a then 35-year old John Adams agreed to take them on. An unpopular position, to be sure. The assignment was potentially devastating to both Adam’s professional career as a lawyer as well as his personal reputation as a Bostonian. Adams took the case anyway.

Contradictory testimony of eyewitnesses, as well as an admission from one of the victims that the mob had indeed provoked the soldiers to fire, resulted in all nine men being acquitted. The jury acquitted Captain Preston on the basis of “reasonable doubt”—the first time such a phrase had ever been used in a court of law.

John Adam’s reputation as a man of integrity was sealed. Though he fiercely opposed the Crown and was a beacon of light in the quake of the American Revolution, he defended the British soldiers because he knew it was the right thing to do.

Every great leader will eventually run into opposition. A leader without enemies is unlikely to be a good leader at all. If you ever doubt that, might I suggest looking into the lives Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln or Joan of Arc—or in fact any great leader you can think of. Great leaders without enemies don’t exist. That’s because tough decisions come with the job. They always have and they always will. You may very well be left in the dilemma of choosing between what is right and what is popular.

Remember, a great leader is not driven by an urge to be loved, but a commitment to do what is right, even when that decision is hard.

By tim brown
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