How would you characterise a leader?

William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli were both eminent British statesmen who were considered two of the smartest persons in England in the late nineteenth century.

The story goes that a young journalist (although other records attribute this account to come from Winston Churchill’s mother, Jennie Jerome) said that she would dine with both so she could decide which one was smarter. She compared the two men: “When I dined with Mr. Gladstone, I felt as though he was the smartest man in England. But when I dined with Mr. Disraeli, I felt as though I was the smartest woman in England.”

I’ve always imagined a leader as someone who possesses certain traits.

Someone with intellect, patience and knowledge, pushing you to succeed and selflessly giving you the tools to help you on your way.

Like an inspiring teacher.

Like a friend, parent or relative.

Someone who believes in you and lifts you up when you stumble.

And you will stumble.

And then there’s a third category. This is the category which I can’t put my finger on. It’s the one which makes me remember that person above others. Not because of what he or she did in their life. But for the way they made me feel when I was around them.

To be a true leader in my book you need to tick all three. One person I have been fortunate to meet in my life who did tick all three boxes was an old law professor at university. He was a short, elderly Indian man with long silver hair, a child’s smile and a cheeky but warm glint in his eye. Certainly, he was inspirational in his lectures on human rights and international law. He was also genuine in his affection for and belief in his students.  But it was his humanity and humility which, supported by a great mind and a beautiful heart, allowed him to give without needing to take in return.

By ‘take’ I mean balance or qualify the giving aspect in some way or form.  Through, for example, ego, narcissism, megalomania, giving ‘qualified’ praise or encouragement to his students or being scared to be outshone by one of them.

If I were to aspire to be a leader one day I would like to be the type of leader he was to me (and many others).  Where my respect and admiration is unqualified and undimmed by the absence of more mainstream comparators of success, such as fame and wealth.

Although our paths have now diverged and we are no longer in touch, I still want to make him proud of me. I can see him sitting in his chair surrounded by an avalanche of books and papers spilling off the desk and shelves onto the floor. His door open and a chair in front of him empty. Available for the next student to sit in and be inspired too.


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