Have you ever heard someone say something like, “Oh, but he has a good heart?” My bet is that we have all heard that or something like it, or something like, “But he is doing the best he can,” or “We have to remember they don’t know any better.”

Excuses. All are excuses for something. The problem gets serious when we make these kinds of excuses for people who have managed to become leaders, people who make decisions that affect others and people who have positions of some authority.

We all know of how different people react to getting some authority. Some accept that responsibility with humility and modesty. They approach a position of authority with the view they are servants not masters. They approach a position of authority with a sense of commitment to make things better for others, not using it to make themselves look better. They approach this position of authority with a sense of moderation, knowing that their role is that of service not decree.

Giving orders is not all that difficult. Taking orders, especially when a person is in a position of leadership, is something else entirely, but in the long run it is the way things should be done.

Getting back to how different people react to getting some authority, we all know people who accept a position of authority with the complete opposite of humility – conceit. They believe that having a little authority gives them the right to issue orders and believe being given some authority makes their decisions infallible and their judgment faultless. If someone else has the nerve to point out the order is impossible or dangerous, a conceited leader’s go to phrase is, “Make it happen.” How often have all of us heard that phrase? But even more dangerous than a conceited leader’s ill-conceived orders are the ones issued by people who just don’t know any better, the ones whose shortcomings get overlooked because, “He (or she) has a good heart.” or “She (or he) is loyal to the cause.”

Many years ago I had the privilege of teaching the Shakespeare play “Julius Caesar” to 15-year-old kids. As we read the first few acts it became clear that the play introduced two very different kinds of men. One was Brutus. Brutus was an idealist, loyal to his ideals of what his city/state, Rome, should be. He was so devoted to his ideals that he was willing to put his friendship with Julius Caesar aside, in fact to assassinate Caesar to, as he saw it, protect the Republic. If he were alive today he would be what we call an “idealist.”

And there can be no doubt that a nation, a government and a society needs idealists. They were the young women and men who joined the Peace Corps, who went into rural America to make conditions better, who marched in rallies to end segregation or an unjust war. They fought all odds to live up to their ideals.

The other character in the play was Mark Antony, the consummate pragmatist. He was willing to do whatever needed to be done to accomplish his goal. He had no hesitation about openly lying, about unleashing a civil war, about saying one thing and then almost immediately doing just the opposite.

In the company of the assassins he said to them, “Friends am I with you all and love you all,” and went on to shake hands with them. As soon as he was alone he made clear his true feelings when he looked on Caesar’s dead body and said, “O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth/That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!” and a minute later, said “And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge./ With Ate by his side come hot from hell,/ Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice/ Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war;” So in one instant he tells the assassins he is on their side but just seconds later he vows to get revenge on them by instigating a civil war, which he does.

My question to the kids then, and now for all of us, is whether we prefer an idealist who is loyal to a cause or an ideal, who refuses to compromise those ideals just to get something done, or do we prefer the pragmatist who will do whatever it takes to reach a goal?

Getting back to the issue of excuses, do we prefer someone who “has a good heart,” or someone who may be able to do a better job? Do we want to put someone with somewhat limited ability in a position of leadership because he (or she) will do the best he or she can, or do we look to someone with more ability but less loyalty? I have no doubt that loyalty and a good heart are admirable qualities, and would agree that they are necessary for someone who has authority. But at the same time, I cannot agree that they are the only, or even the primary qualities we should look for in choosing a leader. The ability to get things done, the qualities of humility, sheer intelligence, a sense of reason and most of all the willingness to accept the advice of others who know more, are what leaders need, not just a loyal heart or dedication.

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