There Are No “Almost Great” Leaders

Once upon a time, I had the extraordinary privilege of playing for some of the greatest conductors in history.

But before you tsk-tsk me for self-aggrandizement, let me also say that I once had the not-so-extraordinary experience of playing . . . for some of the worst conductors in history too.

Many were just dull or mildly annoying, but there were also quite a few that were, well, what can I say . . . they were a genuine check-the-clock-every-45-seconds-wondering-if-life-is-really-worth-living-and-should-I-quit-the-bass-and-take-up-animal-husbandry experience.

But here is the odd thing: there was no middle. I never once encountered an “almost great” conductor. They were either magical, making everything flow with virtually no effort, or they were misery.

When I stepped out of my cultural silo to share this phenomenon with the broader world of people who earn money for a living, I discovered that it was not at all unique to the music business. I had merely seen one iteration of an emotional fractal. People in many different walks of life have told me similar stories. There are no “almost great” leaders or managers anywhere; they either got it or they ain’t. It’s positive or negative, with no gray shades. Their polarity is simply magnified by their power, for good or for ill.

Note, their numbers are not evenly distributed between the two. Gallup’s statistics of workplace emotional disengagement support my theory that the ratio of great to miserable leaders is something like 1:4, or perhaps even 1:5. And so, since most of us are managed by somebody somewhere, and these Gallup numbers indicate that the chance of getting a good manager is perhaps less than 20%, we are all eager to improve our odds via leadership development.

But when we talk about “leadership development,” perhaps that is neither the right term nor the right approach, as it is clearly not a linear process; it’s a bit of a quantum either-or experience. You can always tell in any situation if the leader has embraced one polarity or the other. You can immediately see which of these mutually exclusive forces are in play: hubris or humility, command or communication, narcissism or empathy, fear or faith, blind obedience to systems and tradition or spontaneity, mistrust or trust.

You would think that, if the Earth’s magnetic field is capable of changing polarities, perhaps some of these folks stuck in the negative side can make the shift too. At least, it gives us hope.

But if we assume that there is science in it, and manifesting the positive polarity of leadership is not just a random genetic propensity, can those on the other side be brought round with mere textbook learning?  Or perhaps, are these folks in Group B caught in the grip of Alice Miller’s re-enactment syndrome, and they need, not just “training,” but new-age psychiatric healing help?

In any case, mere corrections on the temporal level miss the point. The fix lies in a leap to greater, or perhaps one might say deeper, consciousness. Once that happens, everything else becomes effortless, as people in that positive state become so open to energy flowing to them.

How to achieve it? Stay tuned . . .

About the Author: Justin Locke is a former bass player turned author, speaker, and consultant on “soft skills,” “emotional literacy,” and the “touchy feely” side of management and leadership. Visit his website at

photo credit: Rob Swystun via photopin cc