There are some things we believe in so wholeheartedly that we don’t even bother persuading non-believers. For me, one such belief is that the leader maketh the team.
When I was in high school I played pretty competitive netball. I was a decent enough player in a decent enough team. Okay fine, we were bad-ass and I sunk goals like I was programmed by Microsoft, but we always managed to end up second or third in the provincial league.
Then, in the year before I finished high school, San Botha was named our captain. San came from a small farmer’s community and was reserved and sweet and just ‘nice’. She wasn’t particularly witty and she didn’t advocate for anything.
She was the best bloody leader I have ever had, counting even the thousand years since high school. I would probably still follow her into the fiery chasms of Mount Doom if she led me there.
Why? Because when she stepped onto a netball court she was set on fire. I have thought long about what such a statement means and how I would explain it. For me, it comes down to two things…
Passion and a complete inability to tone it the hell down. San could do unspeakable things on a netball court and she did it with flair. She had no interest in holding back a bit. And that made all of us want to be like San.
She gave a shit about us but you wouldn’t tell from a distance. While San was not one for loud vocal support, you always knew she had your back. It was in the small things, the things you wouldn’t even notice if you weren’t on the court with us. And she was funny. She had a way of making me laugh the hardest when I screwed up the most. She did it only with one other teammate and years later I realize she did it because she recognized that the two of us could allow one mistake to dominate our entire game if we got lost in our self-admonishment.
We won the league that year.
I’ve been watching the news lately and it is telling how these difficult times are revealing captains who would have their teams win the league.
Take New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, for example. Here is a tough cookie I don’t know from Adam who dominates the news every time the proverbial manure hits the proverbial fan. Then you see New Zealanders deal with their manure very nicely, thank you very much. And sure, it could just be that Kiwis are awesome, but maybe they’re super-awesome now that a San Botha is their captain…
Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor, has never been more adored. When I started watching his press conferences, my cold, stoic heart found him a bit…too human. The jokes, the brother, the love…seriously, this is not how generals lead troops into battle, man.
But then I caught myself looking forward to someone on news reels talking to me like a human (apart from my own president, of course). I know I know, I couldn’t be less New Yorker, but he drew me in, damnit, and suddenly I care about insufficient PPE’s and Chris’s health and which brother their mom loves best.
And then it dawned on me. It’s because San made me feel I am and I can. I am important and I can do it. Jacinda makes her people feel important despite standing on a podium that is lifted far above the heads of the average persons. She makes them feel like they can do anything. Andrew (yes, I am on first name bases with these fine folks…) does the same thing. Cameras have given him the platform to make a lot of people feel that they are important and able to do anything.
I can tell you from experience that this is why Nelson Mandela was a great leader.
Great leaders are not necessarily the greatest speakers or strategists or negotiators. They have people for that. Great leaders make the world a better place, because they make us want to be better and it is us, after all, who makes this world turn round.
Not all countries have human leaders. I’m sad for those countries. But the world is so small now, we can look beyond borders for inspiration. And there are lions and lionesses everywhere…