In my work, I often have opportunities to meet great leaders and to learn from their wise counsel. Recently, I met such a leader and he was kind enough to spend an hour with me sharing his observations about leadership. It was a gift.
This leader served in elected and appointed positions of public service. What follows are excerpts from my hour with the 79th Attorney General, John Ashcroft, who also served as Governor of Missouri (1984-1992) and U.S. Senator (1994-2000).
Today he teaches in the law school of Regent University and has a small business as well. He and his wife Janet live on a farm outside Springfield, Missouri.
Cheryl: When you look back over your life, how would you sum up your personal purpose for public service?
John: You have to be careful looking back. Our motivation for leadership is dynamic; it changes. If I look back I might ascribe a noble motive to things less commendable. The first time I remember thinking about my purpose was in the role of Governor. I knew that I wanted to be a leader that intentionally passed on good values to the next generation of leaders. I believe that in everything we do, we are teachers.
Cheryl: How do you define leadership?
John: Leadership is selecting noble objectives, then pursuing them with intensity and sacrifice, so that others want to follow you. Great leaders put a noble cause ahead of self. The currency of leadership is sacrifice. If you are pursuing something important, self sacrifice is the signal to others that the cause is worth the pursuit. George Washington always put his country before himself. When he was asked to serve as President of the United States for a lifetime, he said no. The greater purpose was to establish a democracy and he did not want to appear like a King.
Cheryl: Is everyone a leader?
John: – Yes. Every person is the most important leader to the people closest to them in their life. As a father, I am the most important leader in my children’s lives. Far more important than any President of the United States.
Cheryl Is governing different than leading?
John: Absolutely. Governing operates at the lowest threshold. It is about setting mandates (the laws) and imposing penalties when the people don’t follow the mandates. Leadership is about calling people to a higher purpose. Great leaders are inspiring role models. Nelson Mandela is an example of a leader who went above the law and inspired people by his role model.
Chery: What gets in a leader’s way?
John: The enemy of great leadership is the definition of the doable. Leaders must redefine what is possible. The noble purpose is far more inspiring than the doable. People want to do great things. I’m reminded of my favorite poem that I memorized as a child: It Couldn’t Be done by Edgar A. Guest.
“There are are thousands to tell you it cannot be done; there are thousands to prophesy failure; there are thousands to point out to you, one by one, the dangers that wait to assail you. But just buckle in with a bit of a grin; just take off your coat and go to it. Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing that ‘cannot be done’ and you’ll do it.”
Cheryl: How did you decide what to focus on in retirement?
John: My chief of staff at the Department of Justice, David Ayres, had set aside his life plans to help me serve in public office. After my retirement, he wanted to go into business. I wanted to help him, so we are now business partners. The most important decision you make in your work is who you will work with. Choose to work with people you trust completely.
Cheryl: What do you enjoy most about your teaching role?
John: I enjoy learning in the classroom. Learning environments are best when they are “horizontal” — everyone is in the process of learning together. As opposed to “vertical” where the teacher lectures the students.
Cheryl: What advice would you give our next generation leaders?
John: Don’t pursue leadership to be popular or well-liked. That is not a goal worthy of leadership. The truly transformational leader rarely wants to be a leader, but the noble purpose or destination draws them to accept a leadership role. Prepare for the time when your gifts are needed to reach the destination. You were made for a purpose.