7 characteristics of an independent leader

His was a politically unpopular act. The tension between the American colonies, particularly Massachusetts, and Great Britain had heightened. The resentment against the crown had grown and the mere presence of British troops only made feelings more bitter.

A small platoon of British soldiers stood sentry on King Street in Boston. Their job? To protect representatives of the crown as those representatives enforced legislation passed in Parliament. On March 5, 1770, a mob formed around one of the sentries and began to harass him with threats. Eight more soldiers soon joined him. Someone threw more than an insult and in the ensuing tumult the soldiers fired into the crowd killing three citizens instantly. Two more would die soon after from their wounds.

The Governor promised an inquiry and the crowd dispersed but re-formed the next day. To avoid further conflict the troops withdrew to Castle Island. Eight soldiers, one officer, and four civilians were arrested and charged with murder. In the trials that followed, the soldiers were represented by an American lawyer who secured acquittal for 6 of the soldiers.

The lawyer took an unpopular stand not for the fee he would earn. He certainly had little to gain politically. He was a colonist who chose to represent the hated crown. He did so because he was an independent man, a man of principle who did what is right because it is right. His name? John Adams. Son of a farmer, shoemaker, local government leader, and church deacon, his reputation for being strong on personal opinion and an independent thinker soon earned him the nickname “Atlas of Independence.”

But the label came about long before John Adam’s role as a key player in the rebellion of the colonies from England. A Harvard graduate, he began his career as a teacher but then moved into the practice of law where he became an icon for honesty, outspokenness, and independence. His life and accomplishments validate his role as a superlative leader.

Independence is not easy to find. The pressures to conform, to comply, to go along are usually easy and harmless. But there are times when one must decide whether to compromise principle for the sake of expedience. Independent leaders won’t.

I am not suggesting that compromise is to be avoided. Indeed, the ability to keep one’s eye on the prize and elicit the cooperation of others even while cooperating with them is a critical leadership behavior. There is an inevitable and necessary give and take in our transactions with others that can mark us as reasonable. A hard-nosed approach soon earns us the reputation for being difficult to get along with.

No, independence in this context means to be sufficiently self-contained so that one can do what is right when the pressures are there to do what is wrong.

Adams wouldn’t. Superlative leaders won’t either.

So, what are some of the characteristics of an independent person?

  1. Doesn’t work for the money alone, but for the match with values and a mutually attractive objective. I worked once for a company led by a man who is a sociopath. Under his persuasive words and charm he would say and do anything to get what he wanted and knew very well how to abuse the gullibility of good people. When I confided in a colleague that I was going to end my contract with that company, my friend asked couldn’t I just do the job for the money. Doing things you feel to be morally wrong for the money is prostitution. You do lots of things for love and relationship you would never do for anything so base as financial reward or self-promotion. Independent people just don’t, even at personal expense.
  2. Able to detect and neutralize the manipulative devices of bosses and subordinates. Dependent people need adulation and approval from others which necessarily affects everything they do. If one is playing to the crowd, one will do what gets the applause. Independent people do not thumb their noses at the crowd but they do what they do because they do what they do, not because of strokes.
  3. Not subject to the seductive power of flattery, either receiving or giving. This goes along with #2. Flattery is insincere praise designed to impress or manipulate. Manipulative people know how to use flattery. Many more are used by flatterers. Independent people have a radar system that sounds the alarm when flattery approaches. But they won’t use it either. They may be generous with their comments of approval and acknowledge another’s abilities or achievements without flattery.
  4. Always has a reserve of “go to hell” money. On the practical side, an independent person never spends everything s/he earns. They build and maintain a reserve so that they are never caught in a squeeze forcing them to do things or compromise integrity because they need the money.
  5. Thinks for themselves. Independence goes hand in hand with emotional security. An independent person can think for him/herself, does not crave validation from others, but does not reject advice, suggestions, ideas, or comments from others either. To do so indicates arrogance or insecurity, not independence.
  6. Has a strong sense of personal capability, significance, power, and influence. Personal assurance of their own self-worth and the value of their contribution to the advancement of their company, organization, or department facilitates an ability to function without being propped up. An independent leader is not a diva, not a prima donna. Neither the workplace nor the workflow revolves around them.
  7. Can work, well…, independently. They can take a job, resource the pieces and people needed, and get something done without needing to be attended to. They extend our reach, multiply our effectiveness, and divide our work.


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