Pathetic Leadership

Posted: September 12, 2011 in Leadership Development
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Many aspiring leaders underestimate the power of what moves them and the power of communicating what moves them. As I was reading “Onward” by Howard Shultz, the founder of Starbucks, it struck me how seriously he took himself, his company, and his coffee. He saw his company as more than a business, but as world shaper, an idea molder, a relationship builder. Consequently, his business has affected millions worldwide. He did not take this responsibility lightly, but in acknowledging it, he made an even greater impact through his bold leadership.

We are often taught not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought, but in doing so we can also err on the side of not taking our responsibilities seriously enough, lacking passion in what we do. Leaders can be tempted to limit their impact by not giving enough weight and significance to what they do. Too often we are reactive and base our worth off of how others respond to our leadership. If I have a child in school, I am not going to base my opinion of my child’s worth on what the teacher says about my child. I am going to base my opinion on what I say about my child, I who have loved and nurtured that child from before he was born. Similarly, if you are a leader or founder or initiator of anything worthwhile, you should not expect to find anyone more passionate, anyone who cares more than you do about what you are doing. If you believe it matters, it does matter. If you can convince others that it matters, you are a leader.

Anyone you find with more passion about a matter than you is someone you can learn from. Even if you take away knowledge and experience, passion will stick out like a sore thumb. Take a look at the definition of the Greek word, “pathos.” Aristotle asserts that this is one of the main elements to effective communication.

“[P]athos (Greek for ‘suffering’ or ‘experience’) is often associated with emotional appeal. But a better equivalent might be ‘appeal to the audience’s sympathies and imagination.’ An appeal to pathos causes an audience not just to respond emotionally but to identify with the writer’s point of view–to feel what the writer feels. In this sense, pathos evokes a meaning implicit in the verb ‘to suffer’–to feel pain imaginatively…. Perhaps the most common way of conveying a pathetic appeal is through narrative or story, which can turn the abstractions of logic into something palpable and present. The values, beliefs, and understandings of the writer are implicit in the story and conveyed imaginatively to the reader. Pathos thus refers to both the emotional and the imaginative impact of the message on an audience, the power with which the writer’s message moves the audience to decision or action.”

Did it strike you that when we are impassioned, we are making a “pathetic” appeal? This says to me that leaders are supposed to believe so much in what they do that they are willing to be seen as pathetic to those who don’t understand. I can imagine what people said of Howard Shultz in the early days, “Man, that guy thinks that the sun rises and sets on his coffee. Get a life!” Well, today he has a life, and a nice one at that.

I was teaching a children’s Sunday School class a number of years ago and, particularly if I was reading the Psalms, I would make a habit of reading the text aloud to the children with as much passion as I could muster. The children sat in rapt attention, though they probably lacked the vocabulary to understand all of what I said. It was my passion that came through, and they were going to sit up and take notice. If I didn’t treat that message as though it was the most important thing that they would ever hear, I wasn’t doing my job.

Today, we have all kinds of messages that compete for our attention. We have so much info, but passion remains a rare commodity. If you believe in what you do more than anyone around you and if you are not afraid to show it, you will find yourself leading many others including some who have surpassed your position. Follow your passion, fan it into flame and don’t be shy about igniting it in others. Your impact will be as significant as you believe it can be.


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