Our ability to lead is not based just on power, “but on the power of our example.”
The former U.S. vice president used this observation in a pointed critique in the New York Times of current President Donald Trump’s administration. It’s quite clear when you read the article, and look at Biden’s remarkable life, that he has fashioned an idea that can be applied to all leaders.
And in so many ways, when you look at Biden’s life, you can see a man who has thrived by setting a powerful example for others.
In naming Biden as one of the World’s Greatest Leaders, Fortune magazine portrayed him as one of the greatest living examples of perseverance.
Biden suffered as a childhood stutterer. He was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972 at the tender age of 29; just a few weeks later, he lost his first wife and infant daughter in a car wreck – a tragedy that did not stop him from becoming one of America’s most influential legislators.
In 2015, Biden lost his son Beau to cancer, and channeled his grief into a groundbreaking initiative to break down silos and promote data sharing in cancer research.
Although he has left electoral politics, Biden remains a powerful example for current political leaders, and often counsels them on how to be effective in all that they do. In a commencement address to Colby College graduates this past May, Biden reminded the students that power is a reflection of the relationships you develop, and those relationships are dependent on your capacity for empathy.
“You have to work to ascribe to your opposition the same emotional complexity you find that you possess,” Biden said.
There is a powerful simplicity to Biden’s advice that all leaders should heed. To be truly accountable leaders, we definitely need to connect more with our peers, our clients, the people we lead, and even our competitors.
Biden has also created a very simple way to assess our effectiveness as leaders. Ask yourself: Are you setting a positive or negative example of leadership? Are you inspiring others and connecting with them? Are you the leader everyone looks up to, wants to emulate, and learn from?
As Biden notes, everything we do and say sets the tone for others. We need to be thoughtful and deliberate about the tone and example we are setting.
We can certainly see lots of examples of business organizations that suffer when leaders are not doing the hard work to set a strong example for their employees and the broader public. The media is full of these stories that now happen with far too much regularity.
We have to remember that the higher up the hierarchy we are, the more important it is to set a positive example. A negative example can be like a virus, infecting and demoralizing leaders at other levels of an organization. Lower-level leaders can often find themselves so demoralized by the lack of a positive example that they give up on trying to set their own. They will say, “What’s the point? Why bother trying to be better when the people above me aren’t trying to be better?”
However, even in an organization where the senior-most leaders are setting bad examples, it’s important to be true to yourself and do everything you can to be a positive example for the people you lead.
As Biden has shown us with his remarkable life, it’s important to resist the temptation to settle for a sub-par performance, to give up.
You can hear more from Joe Biden as he will be the featured keynote speaker at The Art of Leadership series being held this fall. I’m honored to be sharing the stage with such an accomplished leader and other terrific speakers.
This week’s leadership gut check asks: are you setting a powerful example for those you lead?