What Makes a Leader?

By Scott Biddle

Recent events have caused me to sit back and ask the question “What makes a leader?” After serious consideration, I think I can boil my conclusions down to 4 words: Leaders listen, dictators don’t. My experiences with leadership throughout the years have shown me that people with leadership ability not only listen, they actively solicit input from those they are leading. They may not always like what they hear and they may not always agree with what they hear, but they always seek to understand what the people they lead are saying on any given topic.

Let me provide some examples. I remember when I was in first grade and our country elected a new president by the name of Ronald Reagan. At the suggestion of my teacher Mrs. Richards (at Richmond Elementary in St. Charles, Illinois) I sent a letter to President Reagan asking him what it was like being president and asking him about jelly beans (since it was widely reported he liked them). I got a response (which I don’t try to kid myself into believing was actually written by him) and it acknowledged every point I addressed in the letter. I clearly wasn’t the only person with this impression of President Reagan, as his nickname was “The Great Communicator”. I remember later in elementary school being given the assignment of writing to our governor (at the time it was Jim Thompson, who was one of the few governors of Illinois over the last 50+ years who was not indicted for misbehavior during or after his stay in office) and I remember being fascinated that he would take the time to respond to me (even though I knew even then that it was likely handled by his staff).

As I moved out into the professional world I thought it fascinating that CEOs and vice presidents of billion dollar companies for which I worked would have “open door” policies and actively solicit feedback from the thousands of “average Joe” employees like me. I made sure to avail myself of the opportunity to provide such feedback on multiple occasions. It was interesting to note that on several occasions I would ask a CEO a specific question about a specific policy or incident and I would get a response back from him and the policy or incident I addressed would be dealt with in the manner I had suggested. I must admit that I also remember one occasion when I made a suggestion surrounding a temporary easing of the dress code during the summer (I requested they allow us to wear khaki shorts instead of khaki slacks during the heat of the Arkansas summer) which was flatly refused, but at least my suggestion was read and evaluated and responded to by the CEO.

I contrast all of the wonderful examples of leaders I have known who actively listen with the dictators we have in office at all levels today. It would be easy for me to limit my remarks to the dictators of Searcy, who will not listen to anyone who disagrees with them (even a circuit judge), but the evidence of this (mis)behavior on their part is so abundant and blatant and has been covered so frequently in this forum that I will give them a pass (at least Mr. Chalenburg and Mrs. Arnett sat around and listened while two citizens of Searcy were venting their spleens after the November 10th city council meeting, which is more than can be said for the mayor or Aldermen Dixon, English, and Sterling). I have on several occasions contacted Senator Mark Pryor’s office to provide feedback concerning policies under consideration. On the occasions I contacted him via e-mail I got a canned response which essentially said “Thanks for contacting us, we will do what we think is best.” I have read the e-mails other people have shared with me which they have received from him and other members of our congressional delegation and many of the responses were similar. On the occasions I stopped by Senator Pryor’s office to provide feedback the disinterested employees said “Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard that before from lots of other people but the Senator has already decided to do the opposite of what all of you are suggesting.” There was no “I’ll make sure the senator gets your input.” No notes of any sort were taken. I have known a man for over a decade who has been a staffer for two U.S. Senators during some portion of that time (he currently resides in Washington and is on the staff of a very powerful elected official but I will say no more). The only reason I mention this is because this man once gleefully told the tale of how he and other staffers would chastise constituents who called the office of their Senator and explain to them that the constituents shouldn’t call in and tell them to cut taxes and spending on entitlement programs because that was the height of cruelty to the poor and they were mean or stupid for suggesting such a thing.

This is the culture that we have developed around the halls of government in the U.S., and it extends from Washington D.C. all the way down to city hall. Our founding fathers declared that all of the power in the government is derived from the consent of the governed, not the control of the governed, but it is hard to know if you have (or don’t have) that consent if you are unwilling to even listen to what those you govern have to say. When elected officials at any level cease to solicit feedback (or worse, actively reject unsolicited feedback) from those they govern, they cross the line which separates leaders concerned with adhering to the wishes of their constituents from dictators obsessed with forcing their will on the uninformed masses.


Scott Biddle is a Guest Contributor to The Arkansas Patriot. He serves as Chairman of the Searcy Friends of Voters. Contact Scott at scott.biddle@sbcglobal.net

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One comment

  1. James Climer

    Nice post Scott! I have to agree, I have much more respect for leaders who listen to and consider feedback from their constituents.

    I had the same results as you mentioned when I’ve written letters to our senators on matters that were important to me. I felt as though I was wasting my time–and well I guess I was, and yet I’ll keep writing them. 🙂

    Keep working hard for the folks in Searcy!

    -James

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