The leadership quality people don’t talk about

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Over the years I have read hundreds of leadership related books, attended many conferences and seminars all teaching people the habits, mindsets, and skills of being a leader. The common thread in this area was a somewhat nebulous idea that the objective was to be an influential person, to having power and clout. To be able to make a difference in the world both for yourself and others.

In fact, a summary of the entire leadership development field would be:
learning the skills to win friends and influence people in order to gain power for yourself that you can then use for whatever you think is best.

But there is something missing from the mix and that is an element I like to call the Cincinnatus quality.

Around 400 BC when Rome was a fledgling city-state republic run by consuls and the senate, there was a dispute with a tribe called the Aquei, and the Aquei army was headed towards Rome. The Romans quickly organized their army and marched out to meet them. The Romans won the first few skirmishes but didn’t realize they were being setup for a trap. As they pursued the Aquei they were led into a large valley with only a few gaps among the steep mountains, the Aquei had prepared barricades to block the entrances and trap the Roman army away from any supplies.

When Rome found out about this, they were in a panic. They were afraid that their entire army would need to surrender, leaving the city extremely vulnerable to conquest. The Roman senate decided that because of the present emergency they were going to appoint a dictator. Now surprisingly a dictator in the Roman Republic was an actual government position appointed in times of crisis. A Senate system doesn’t work well in times of crisis so they appoint one man to become a dictator who has complete control over all areas of government.

The person they chose was a retired consul named Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. He is know in history as simply Cincinnatus, and we have a city named after him called Cincinnati. After the senate appointed him, they found him plowing in his field. Once told about the problem and the appointment, Cincinnatus raced to the city, raised a second army, and went out to save the main army.

Cincinnatus had sent scouts out to assess the situation and realized that the Aquei had divided their army to protect the different passes. So Cincinnatus chose the pass that best allowed him to approach without giving the Aquei time to assemble a large force. He was able to fall on that portion of the army, defeat it, and free the main army. Using that army, he quickly surrounded and forced the Aquei to surrender.

When he returned to Rome at the head of the combined triumphant army, as was the custom, an enormous parade was thrown with Cincinnatus in a Chariot at the head of the procession wearing a laurel wreath on his head.

Cincinnatus had won. He now had all the position, power, influence, goodwill, and political capital he could ever need.


So what did he do? Two days later he disbanded his army, resigned his commission, turned control back over to the senate, and went back to plowing his field.

400 years later in the Roman province of Judea there was an itinerant prophet who was gaining a great deal of attention and followers through his preaching. He had his growing group of loyal disciples and everyone, it seemed, both rich and poor, came out into the wilderness to hear this man preach.

He was doing what all the leadership development technics say. He had great personal discipline, he had developed a compelling message, and he was very skillful and bold in getting his message out there to the world. He had an amazingly bright future ahead of him.

Then one day another man walked by and this itinerant preacher, named John, said to all of his followers, “behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” This made some of his disciples curious, so they left John and started following this other man, Jesus. Soon Jesus was also preaching and drawing crowds, causing more disciples and people to leave John as they started listening to Jesus. John’s Disciples were concerned that his star was being eclipsed and his influence was waning, but John said this: “He must increase, and I must decrease.” John knew that his leadership wasn’t about making a name and following for himself. He was the voice in the wilderness, preparing the way for the Lord. He knew that it wasn’t about him but about the one that he would prepare the way for and baptize. Jesus would become the person of significance while John would later rot in prison until he was beheaded, all the while content that he had done his job. This is Cincinnatus type of leadership.

In our country's history, we have a man who was called a Cincinnatus type of leader. In the dark fledgling days of our war for independence, George Washington was giving charge of a ragtag army that was attempting to defeat the current world power. After he accomplished this herculean task, he found himself in an interesting position. He was the undisputed, most-popular person at the head of a victorious army in a nation that had no organized form of government, no structure, with nobody to run the affairs of state. Washington's officers asked him to declare himself the king for at least a time until the job of governing could be sorted out. And if he had done that, while a few would have had misgivings, almost no one would have stood in his way. It would have been so easy.

In fact soon after the war an American named Benjamin West was living in London and King George asked him what kind of a government he thought Washington would set up. Benjamin replied that he understood Washington was planning on retiring to his farm. King George was believed to have replied that “if he does that, then he will be the greatest man of the age.”

George Washington chose the Cincinnatus path and resigned his commission as leader of the army and returned to his farm.


When the first attempt at governing the colonies failed and they decided to call a constitutional convention, George Washington was asked to be the president of that body, after which he again went back home.

It was no surprise to anyone that he was the first person to be elected president. And they would have let him keep right on serving until he died, but Washington realized that he needed to pass the torch. After just two terms he stepped aside and allowed for what, at that time, was an incredible rarity of a peaceful organized transfer of power to an unrelated person.

His Cincinnatus-like precedent of only serving two terms was honored by all but one of his successors.


These three men all exemplify the quality of leadership that realizes that it’s not all about you. It’s not always you that will become the recognized, respected, leader. Sometimes our leadership ability is the ability to see the bigger picture than what we want and what we can do. There is a time for us to put ourselves forward, and a time for us to retire, and we must have the wisdom to know the difference. The Cincinnatus quality of realizing that our leadership may be all about preparing for and being a champion for someone else.

In my own life, one of the things that I have noticed is that having kids has hindered me from doing all the “leadership things” that I want to in the communities that I am part of. But am I missing the point? Maybe the point of my leadership isn’t about me being the big influencer with all the clout and prestige. Maybe it’s all about me preparing my kids and even preparing the way for my kids?

Maybe the best thing I can do is be someone else’s champion and supporter, instead of seeking a position of power for myself.


The leadership development material I have read so much of gives lip service to helping others but underlying it seems to be the idea that the reason to help others is that it will, in turn, will give us the influence we so desire.

We are trying to gain influence but to what end? To gain more influence?

Being willing to give up power, being willing to step aside, being willing to promote someone else is the leadership quality that we don’t talk much about.

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