Down the road from where I used to live stood a small antiques mall, one of those places where very small businessmen could rent a booth space and sell of a few pieces of antiques and wannabes. At the back corner one dealer specialized in more contemporary collectibles. the entrance to his space, and fully visible from the front door, stood Elvis Presley.
Not an impersonator, but a cardboard cut-out of the king in full sequined glory. The owner said he sells a lot of them proving people will pay good money for the illusion of greatness. Elvis, as people buy into him today, is merely two dimensional. Possessing height and width, there is no depth. From a distance he looks good, has appeal, and provokes pleasant emotional responses.
But it isn’t real. Its cardboard and as such is only a two-dimensional character. The fact that anyone would buy a cardboard character points to the fixation we have for celebrities. We are quite willing to buy into the image and appearance of greatness and quite willing to ignore the fact that what we are seeing is a carefully constructed, meticulously presented image. And we are eager to neglect the difficult questions and demand they be answered before we swear our allegiance.
We are anxious to be misled! The image-makers know this and exploit it to their advantage and usually to our disadvantage. Note the most recent presidential election. The winner’s handlers exploited style over substance. It worked.
Two Types of Greatness – Essential & Apparent
Essential greatness is greatness that issues from the essence of a person- their character. They are and have proven to be, people of substance, courage, fortitude, and integrity. Indeed, the word integrity comes from the root INTEGER, a whole number not evenly divisible. They are who they are regardless of setting, circumstance, or consequence.
Apparent greatness is greatness that issues from how they appear and their manner – their charisma. They are gifted speakers, skilled in the craft of appealing to a crowd. They say the right things at the right time.
Managers of celebrities and their campaigns understand that a candidate with APPARENT greatness but lacking in or weak of essential greatness will almost always win over one with essential greatness who is less apparently great.
Which type of greatness is found in the best leaders?
To be fair, charisma and style goes a long ways toward making an effective leader. People respond to words well-spoken and mannerisms stylishly presented quite readily. For rapid mobility and quick responsiveness nothing beats charisma.
A cardboard candidate, well-presented and carefully managed will find a ready market.
The most effective leaders are people of character with charisma. It is the reliance upon and the marketing of apparent greatness coupled with the ansence of essential greatness that eventually reveals a deeper problem.
It is the issue of motives and intent.
Men and women of essential greatness have ambitions tempered by experience, motives tested by success and failure, and intentions revealed through history. They have demonstrated they can be trusted to do the right thing, the sacrificial thing and the generous thing.
Apparently great leaders are better at motivation but much more suspect in their motives. They have almost always learned that their gift of charisma will get them what they want when they want it. Singularly charismatic leaders tend to be selfish and self-promoting which works especially well in politics.
The Difference between Politicians and Statesmen.
Politicians speak well, promise much, and know how to survive. They are wily, cunning, crafty, and able to play into the sentiments of the moment in order to keep themselves in the public eye and on the public payroll.
Statesmen usually speak well but promise less. They call to the higher motives of nation building, commitment to noble cause, and sacrificial decision-making. They care little for public polls and often suffer politically for it. They do what’s right because it is right, not because it means votes.
The contrast is particularly striking in this last election. The winner’s handlers marketed a cardboard candidate especially well. That the public was so willing to buy a two-dimensional figure does not bode well. We would apparently rather buy the illusion of greatness than the less flashy and polished real deal.