Tyrants And Saints

Monument to Nicholas I on Saint Isaac's Square in Saint Petersburg at Russia. Historical monument during winter weather. Snowy view. City`s landmarks.

CS Lewis once wrote: “How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been; how gloriously different are the saints.” That really stuck with me.  And prompted me to consider all of the leaders in my life, including myself as a leader within, and to take inventory on how many were tyrants and how many saints.

Think about your inventory of leaders for a moment.  What makes them a tyrant or a saint for you?  And who came to mind first: a tyrant or a saint?

The impact leaders make, whether great or terrible, changes our lives daily.  With each interaction we have an opportunity to learn: about the job or task we are in at the moment, as well as about others and ourselves.  

And moments of clarity and greatness do emerge out of the tyrants.  Something got them to the big chair; perhaps someone saw something in them and gave them that responsibility or they just created the chair (the tyrant), or… took it for themselves (the conqueror).  There is prowess in their ability to gain that spot.  It’s what happens once they’re there. Were they feared or loved? Learning through fear creates limited, unsustainable results.  And it limits the retention of the most talented people.  One of the “BTWs” I hear most often from senior leaders are their current retention rates for talent.  I don’t even have to ask what’s top of mind, they usually serve up their current performance and what it means to them presently.  

Retaining talent is a challenge today.  It seems weird given recent layoffs and the emergence of AI and all the uncertainties that brings.  A recent meeting with a client brought up the axiom “people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers (I purposely used managers over leaders)” and there is real truth in it.  As a coach, it’s one of the top two reasons people come to me for help.  Their boss is killing them.  (The other is time management which can be a symptom that their boss is killing them.)

So…how do we make more saints?

I don’t have all the answers here.  Saints are, in part, special in the way they’re built and turning people from tyrants to saints hasn’t happened very much in history.  Here are my few thoughts on how those leaning toward sainthood can focus and amp up their route to leader beatification…

  1. Empathy – I know it’s overused, and it still holds true.  What is that person you lead experiencing, what’s it like standing in their shoes at that moment?
  2. Vulnerability – The toughest skill to develop and deploy from the big chair.  This one leads you to saintly greatness. Admit when you don’t know things, and see how powerful that is to your team.
  3. Curiosity – Some may say that a tyrant can also be curious, and I say if they were truly curious they wouldn’t really be a tyrant.
  4. Servant leadership – To work for others first and foremost as their leader.  Can you imagine if some of today’s political and commercial giants operated like this even just a little?
  5. Managing with love – This one was coined by the venerable Allan Mullaly, retired leader of Boeing and Ford. He states that sometimes you have to bring someone into your office and let them know that it’s not working out and that you will help them with all your power to find the right place for their talent no matter where that place is.

(I picked these because I don’t see these traits residing in tyrants.  There are others that you might be thinking about and the test is if both tyrants and saints exhibit a trait then it doesn’t belong on the list.)

We need more saints in leadership.  Digging into my Philosophy 101 – Introduction to Logic –  flashback to my freshman year, the syllogism looks like this:  All leaders are either tyrants or saints.  Both tyrants and saints can produce significant results.  No one wants to work for tyrants.  Look, I got a C in the course so my syllogistic prowess leaves room for improvement.  I’m no CS Lewis, I just know I don’t want to work for a tyrant, or be one, ever…


“Hello curious human.  If you’ve made it this far, then curiosity and awareness are two of your superpowers. Do you have the COURAGE to go to the next level?  Consider the wild idea of investing in you! New programs are available! Why wait any longer?!?  Here’s a link to start creating that discussion right now!

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