The Art of Gracious Leadership

Adapted from an article by David Brooks for the New York Times

Some leaders may be selfless, working hard for a public cause, but at the same time appear brittle, controlling, or defensive. This article discusses the importance of being a gracious leader instead, and what that means.

So I’ve been thinking lately that it’s not enough to be experienced. The people in public life we really admire turn experience into graciousness.

Those people see their years as humbling agents. They see that, more often than not, the events in our lives are perfectly designed to lay bare our chronic weaknesses and expose some
great whopping new ones.

Sooner or later, life teaches you that you’re not the center of the universe, nor quite as talented or good as you thought. It teaches you to care less about what others think and be less self-conscious, to get out of your own way.

People who are gracious also understand the accuracy of John Keats’s observation that, “Nothing ever becomes real ’til it is experienced.” You can learn some truth out of a book or from the mouth of a friend, but somehow wisdom is not lodged inside until its truth has been engraved by some moment of humiliation, delight, disappointment, joy, or some other first hand emotion.

The gracious people one sees in life and reads about in history books — I’m thinking of the all-time greats like Lincoln, Gandhi, Mandela, and Dorothy Day, as well as closer figures ranging
from Francis to Havel — turn awareness of their own frailty into sympathy for others’ frailties. As Juan Gabriel Vásquez wrote, “Experience, or what we call experience, is not the inventory of
our pains, but rather the learned sympathy towards the pain of others.”

Gracious people are good at accepting gifts, which is necessary for real friendship, but is hard for a proud person to do. They can be surprisingly tenacious in action. Think of Martin Luther King Jr. The grace that flowed into him from friends and supporters and from all directions made him radically hopeful*
and gave him confidence and tenacity. His capacity to fight grew
out of his capacity to receive.

Such people have a gentle strength. They are aggressive and kind, free of sharp elbows, comfortable revealing, and being abashed by, their transgressions.

Experience distills life into instinct. If you interpret your life as a battlefield, then you will want to maintain control at all times. You will hoard access. You will close yourself off to those who
can help.

If you treat the world as a friendly and hopeful* place, as a web of relationships, you’ll look for the good in people and not the bad. You’ll be willing to relinquish control, and in surrender you’ll actually gain more strength as people trust in your candor and come alongside. Gracious leaders create a more gracious environment by greeting the world openly, and so end up maximizing their influence and effectiveness.

*Hopefulness is an essential aspect of leadership which will be discussed in the Persistence Pillar.

“You cannot dream yourself into a Character; you must hammer and forge yourself one.”