Last month when Jerry Falwell died, television news programs covered the story, and newspapers around the country published articles and obituaries attempting to characterize his life. Some called him a righteous man who made a positive impact. Others asserted that he was narrow-minded—or worse, a huckster.
Whenever a high-profile leader dies, people immediately attempt to summarize that person's life in a sentence. Often, critics and commentators get caught up looking at the leader's style, or which political or philosophical camp they represented. My natural inclination is to look at leaders purely in terms of leadership. The bottom line for me is what influence they had and whether they used it to make a positive impact.
The interaction between every leader and follower is a relationship, and all relationships either add to or subtract from a person's life. If you are a leader, then you are having either a positive or a negative impact on the people you lead. How can you tell? Ask yourself these questions: Are you making things better for the people who follow you? Are you adding value to their lives? Or are you taking from them and giving less in return?
Depending on the impact they make, I believe there are really only four types of leaders: Adders, Subtracters, Dividers, and Multipliers. If you want to evaluate the lives of leaders, you can start by determining the kind of leaders they were.
1. Some leaders add to others—we enjoy following them
Good leaders make a contribution to others. They add value by working to make things better for the people who follow them. Nobel laureate Albert Einstein asserted, "Only a life lived in the service of others is worth living." That is the key. Good leadership is characterized by service.
How do leaders serve their people? They may pay good wages and treat employees with respect. They may seek public office to try to make things better for their fellow citizens. They may care for the sick or feed the hungry. The specifics depend on the leader's vision, talent, skills, and organizational context. But the intention of good leaders is always the same: to add value to others.
People who add value to others do so intentionally. I say that because to add value, leaders must give of themselves, and that rarely occurs by accident.
2. Some leaders subtract from others—we tolerate them
In William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Cassius asserts: "A friend should bear his friend's infirmities, But Brutus makes mine greater than they are."
That's what subtracters do. They make things more difficult for those who follow them. Not only do they not bear others' burdens, they make heavier the ones they already have.
The sad thing about subtracters is that their effect on others is usually unintentional. They don't know how to add value to others. They're not even aware that adding value should be their goal. They think that making life tough for their people is simply the cost of getting the job done. And they often don't recognize the negative impact they have on others.
3. Some leaders divide others—we avoid them
When leaders who are subtracters don't change their ways, it's only a matter of time before their impact on others goes from subtraction to division. This is the worst kind of leader.
Where subtracters fail to help their people, dividers go a step further. They intentionally make things more difficult for them. They hoard power and protect their position, and as a result, they do whatever it takes to keep themselves on top. They're like the company president who sent his personnel director a memo, saying, "Search the organization for an alert, aggressive young man who could step into my shoes—and when you find him, fire him."
Dividers seek to make themselves look or feel better by making others feel worse. They damage relationships, fracture teams and organizations, and create havoc in people's lives.
4. Some leaders multiply value in others—we value them
Great leaders don't just make the workplace better. They don't just make the team a winner. They make the people better. True, they help them to succeed, but they do much more than that. They help people to make the most of their talent and to reach their potential. And they raise up other leaders by giving of themselves, by training and mentoring, and by giving people responsibilities and opportunities to rise up in the organization. Sometimes that even means stepping aside so that a better leader they've developed can pass them by!
Any time you want to measure the contribution of a leader—living or dead—use leader's math to do it. More important, if you are a leader, use it to measure your own contribution. Here's the good news: Anyone who wants to can become an adder. It takes only a desire to lift people up, basic leadership skills, and the intentionality to follow through.
But I encourage you to take your leadership to a higher level—to become a multiplier. To do that, one must be strategic, skilled, and highly intentional. It doesn't happen accidentally. But if you do add value to others, you won't have to worry about how others will characterize your life when it's over.