The First Vatican Council defined papal infallibility in 1870, but the date on which the doctrine was officially defined is not the date on which it became true. The doctrine of infallibility was always true. When different aspects of the Faith have been seriously challenged, the Church has settled the difficulty by formally stating what the truth of the matter is in order to end the confusion. The successors of Peter have had the authority, which comes ultimately from Christ, to bind and loose, to bind the faithful in matters pertaining to salvation, i.e. in faith or morals.
If a Pope could bind the faithful to error, it would be a clear triumph of the powers of Hell, because the entire Church would be bound to follow the error under Christ’s own authority. Therefore, logic demands that the power of confirming the brethren must be an infallible power. The Pope, when teaching on a matter of faith and morals to the entire Church, is protected by the Holy Spirit from error, else the powers of hell would prevail. His teaching act is therefore called “infallible” and the teaching that he articulates is termed “irreformable.”
So much for the Church, but how about Politics? In his book “Better under Pressure” Justin Menkes writes that “every accomplished individual is also very flawed—and we must understand this paradox if we are to recognize what enables leaders to win their hard-earned reputations. The human longing to believe in the infallible leader is very powerful. To be under the direction of infallibility eases our fears in an uncertain future. But there are no gods in business or any other field. It’s something we may know rationally, but we must truly debunk our tendencies to categorize people as heroes or losers, gods or charlatans, and we must especially eliminate our penchant for categorizing and oversimplifying great leaders. They do not get it right every time—just much more often than their competitors, and for a much longer period. All good leaders have times of weakness, when their less heroic selves emerge.”
Menkes, in this passage, addresses our perception of great leaders, but what is just as important is the perception leaders have of themselves. If leaders do not or cannot recognize their fallibility, then their followers are wallowing in the deepest of dung.
Few of our leaders ever say, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake.” Instead, they bluff, lie and deny while their sycophants spin a web of deceit that enshrouds the truth and rewrites history. If leaders could just say, in Obama’s words, “I screwed up,” they would at least get credibility points for admitting what everyone else knows. The first person you need to admit your mistakes to is you. You are human, and so is everyone around you, even your most trusted advisors. Acknowledge the situation, and even their part, without castigation. Shaming people only creates fear and alienation, which increases the likelihood of future mistakes because people tend to play their cards closer.
Pay attention not only to the decision, but to how it was made. Maybe key stakeholders were ignored, maybe the important data was discounted, maybe the decision was too quick or took too long. Leaders can become committed to faulty courses of action by an inability to see the limits of their own infallibility. There is only one crime when an honest mistake is made: to deny it and fail to learn what you can.
When a political party falls from grace and is replaced, we see—after a while for time heals all sores—the same resurgence of infallibility, often in the face of a new election. The soul searching and analytical dissection of what went wrong has disappeared or been forgotten; a totally unreal version of history emerges and is accepted as the truth.
The Party did not lose the last election because it had failed to deliver on its promises of a safer, less crime infected society; it did not lose because the murder rate had climbed and climbed just as it had continued to do under the new regime; it did not lose because the economy was in a shambles and people were losing their jobs, prices were soaring and it was becoming daily more and more problematic to make ends meet; it did not lose because of accusations of corruption, deceit and the abuse of power; it did not lose because the energy and enthusiasm of the first term disappeared like the invigorating early morning air; it did not lose because of financial scandals; neither did it lose because the Leader was seen, justly or otherwise, as a vindictive, spiteful, arrogant person who was insensitive to the wishes and advice of others and ruled the country without consultation and made decisions putting the country in debt without the approval of the House, Senate or Parliament.
The new pre-election reality is that the Party lost because the People, the poor, ignorant, despised electorate, was duped into believing the false promises of an old, charismatic former leader who reminded the country of a distant, perhaps unreal, past when life was good, crime was down, houses could remain unlocked and hardships were minor irritations. The ungrateful electorate failed to realize how good the Leader was, how hard he toiled for the country and how, despite his growing girth and inaccessibility, he had only their best in his heart.
There is a phenomenon in leadership, known as the “Reality Distortion Field” The term describes a level of charismatic self-assurance so overwhelming and nigh delusional that no criticism can penetrate it, and those in its path are powerless to withstand the hype. In this sphere, any ambition is attainable, every idea a masterpiece and any setback a negligible distraction. Such overconfidence might seem absurd on paper, but in practice it is embraced as an exceptional quality.
The Party becomes blind to reality; flattering voter polls predict an overwhelming victory, perhaps even greater than before. The Party, choked by the Leader’s supreme self-confidence and smothered by his belief in his own infallibility, becomes complacent, takes victory for granted and ultimately loses the election.
Leading through the sheer force of overbearing will carries the particularly undesirable side effect of volatility. Intimidation and abuse rank high as motivation for staff to fall in step with one’s ineffable vision, and screaming tantrums are not unheard of in these environments. Apple’s Steve Jobs was himself given to rages that drove some to the verge of tears.
One the toughest things for many people to deal with is uncertainty. In the recent past, there has been only one certainty in business—that no one really knows how deep or how long this recession will be. We are certain only of the uncertainty that we face.
So what is the role of the leader in this? Some show the world the ‘Superman’ image: The impenetrable face of someone who is always right and therefore doesn’t listen to others; others present the charismatic, energetic inspirational ‘Duracell-bunny’ people-magnet. Both are a nightmare in the making.
What people really want is congruent leadership, but you cannot be a congruent leader at either of the two aforementioned extremes; if leaders think that people want them to be super-human and try to present that image to the world, all they end up with is resentment and broken trust. Pretending you know it all, is fatal. At the other end of the scale, you can’t be fluffy and truly lead. All that leads to is a lack of faith in the your abilities. What we want in our leaders is authenticity and consistency.
The most common of all myths about leadership is that they are born, not made. Leaders are made by their circumstances. Extraordinary circumstances may propel them to become effective leaders. Leadership skills are gained through consistent effort. Leaders have a vision and a sense of direction. They learn from others. Leaders make mistakes. In fact, they may even appear to commit more mistakes than others because they take more visible decisions. Good leaders are candid in admitting their mistakes and in learning lessons from them. Leaders inspire others to do what is required of them in a given situation. Charisma is not the absolute quality of a leader. Leaders are often followed because they are respected for their hard work, integrity, ideas, and commitment. Leaders need not have impressive personalities. Leaders possess the ability to influence people.
People become effective leaders with what they learn from their past experience, not just with increasing age. A leader’s true effectiveness is measured by his or her ability to command a following without wielding absolute power. Leadership is not tyranny. Leaders delegate the right work to the right person. They share work and responsibilities judiciously, which in no way undermines their credibility. Indeed, this sharing paves the way for new leaders to emerge. Leadership is about attitude, not about knowledge. Even if you study thousands of books, you may not develop leadership unless you inspire a shared vision, facilitate collective efforts to reach a common objective and identify and nurture the right talent. Leaders nurture their successors. They do not hang on to power.