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Should Leaders Keep Their Distance, or Just Be “One of The Guys?”

If you saw the movie “The Kings Speech,” you saw a brilliant example of the philosophy of leaders who believe they shouldn’t be like everyone else.  When the Duke of York became King of England after his older brother abdicated, he was horrified of the responsibility because of his serious stammer.  When an eccentric therapist insisted they work together as equals, the Duke’s response is telling:  “I’d be home with my wife and no one would give a damn if we were equals.” Leaders of the time understood that they had responsibilities, were required to make sacrifices, and lead different lives than everyone else.  Contrast that with today, where the attitude is that leaders should be accessible and relatable.  People want leaders to be one of the guys, hang out, and be a friend like everyone else. In fact, in America today, it’s almost an embarrassment to agree with Thomas Jefferson that  society should have “a natural aristocracy among men composed of virtues and talents.”

Business leaders, pastors, and even military leaders (see Owen Honors who was just relieved of command of the U.S.S. Enterprise after the revelation that he starred in a series of raunchy, over the top comedy videos) – it’s assumed that leaders today should take a remarkably casual attitude toward leadership.

I understand that philosophy and in many cases have urged leaders to be more accessible and understanding to the people they lead.  However, I also understand the need to keep some distance.  After all, a leader has to make the hard decisions, like which direction the organization takes, which  team members come along, or which team members get left behind.  Sometimes leaders can’t be “nice.”  They have to make sacrifices and decisions that aren’t popular.

I find it interesting that reports across the country are that people are applauding (and some are cheering) at the end of “The King’s Speech.”  Certainly it’s a sublimely well crafted movie.  But I think there’s also something more.

In a time of cowardly government leaders, out of control celebrities, pampered athletes, greedy business leaders, and even the parade of church leaders caught in sexual or financial compromise, people are crying out for leaders who are different.  They’re not looking for a pal – they’re looking for someone who can make tough choices, provide insight, tackle a difficult challenge, and rise above the fray.

If you’re a leader, don’t think you have to be everybody’s friend.  It’s not about being arrogant, or a jerk – it’s about preparing yourself (and your team) for the tough calls.  Leadership isn’t about being cool.  It’s about taking people from where they are to where they need to be.

As King George VI reminded us, it’s not about being hip, it’s about rising to the occasion.

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Phil Cooke, Ph.D, is a filmmaker, media consultant, and founder of Cooke Media Group in Los Angeles, California. His latest book is “Ideas on a Deadline: How to Be Creative When the Clock is Ticking." Find out more at philcooke.com.