Leadership for the Greater Good: Reflections on Today’s Challenges From Around the Globe

Good People Need Good Leaders

by Katherine Tyler Scott

In the light of the January 6th insurrection, Katherine Tyler Scott explores what it means to be a good person and the need for more leaders who understand what it really means to be good – leaders with integrity and empathy who can help resolve conflict rather than exploit it for their own narcissistic gains.


In another blog I wrote recently about the violent attack on the United States Capitol and its residents – Congressional and Senate representatives – I responded to comments made by members in a group who, like me, were trying to make sense of what happened, why and how.  Some tended to rationalize the insurrection as “good people” doing bad things” or as “good people making bad choices.” In response, I wrote a set of axioms of what it is that “good people” actually do.

I continue to process this event and the more I do the more I see the inextricable effect of the absence of “good” leadership. I have been questioning what effect we are having on those who sit in our classrooms, graduate from our institutions, participate in our programs. What difference are we making on their identities, on their ability to know what is harmful and what is healthful, on their ability to think and reason and question, and on their judgement, character, and core values?

Many of us are still trying to understand what we saw, what it means, and how and why it happened. It will take more time to fully comprehend what the most hopeful among us think will ultimately be more than a reckoning but an awakening.

Those who saw the perpetrators of violence as “good people” with grievances want to avoid demonizing others and resist writing them off as a lost cause. “We should judge the actions not the person; counter hate with love,” they intone. And many are talking about relatives and friends. These sentiments would normally resonate with me; but in my heart I find them to be hurtful and harmful. In the current reality they feel out of touch, almost dismissive of the extreme rage and hostility we all saw. They ignore the fact that those in the most powerful positions perpetuated the hatred and encouraged the violence against those they believe should not count.

Those who refuse to draw a bright red line between what is right and what is not, who acknowledge wrongdoing in one breath while excusing it in another are contributing to the demise of a civil society. When we act in ways that deprive the humanity of others, we contribute to a toxic culture that spews lies that change beliefs and defy commonly accepted norms.

Those who refuse to draw a bright red line between what is right and what is not, who acknowledge wrongdoing in one breath while excusing it in another are contributing to the demise of a civil society.

The videos seen of the terrorist attack and subsequent investigative reporting show an obvious and intentional commitment to harm others that is both shocking and heartbreaking. The more we process these scenes the harder it is to set them aside or to let the words, ”Good people do bad things,” go unchallenged. Such explanations are inadequate and are tacit approval of and justification of violence as the way to settle differences.

Democracy is at risk around the globe. As James MacGregor Burns wrote, the fragility of the way our founders structured our form of governance is its tendency to create fragmentation. We have seen how those with malevolent intentions can easily exploit the system for their own self-interests. We see clearly how the health of democracy is dependent on the mental health of its citizens, on their education, and on staying informed, involved, and committed to honesty and facts. The openness of our democracy works best when differences of opinion are not based on different views of reality, when one is based on deception and the other on a search for truth.

Those of us who idealized the durability of democracy now know it cannot endure without our conscious attention and continual work on improving it. It cannot exist without our capacity to consciously select leaders with moral, ethical, civil, knowledgeable, and responsible behaviors – “good” leaders who enable others to express the essential responsibilities of citizenship that a healthy democracy requires – leaders who help us live up to a shared ideal and the promise of a better world.

Without this commitment to such attributes, without a shared vision of the ideal, the bonds of cohesion needed for community and stability will erode and the inheritance of a coherent identity will be lost.

The level of denial needed to support leaders who have no regard for this inheritance are irresponsible. They have precipitated a crisis perpetrated by a distortion of facts and the undermining of truth, a crisis that is fueled by the steady accommodation to falsehood and fabrication, that encourages aggression and scapegoating. As one colleague characterized this behavior, “it is consciously deciding to be unconscious.”

Consciously deciding to be unconscious is contributing to an environment in which none of us is safe. There is no rational excuse for what happened at the U.S Capitol on January 6, 2021.

A group of citizens led by hate stormed it looking for legally elected leaders, defiling, defacing, and destroying property, and desecrating the very symbol of freedom they had viciously attacked a Black athlete for kneeling before.   

Good leaders understand how easily we can lose what many have sacrificed and died to preserve. If we choose to be unconscious, we will share the responsibility for the deep divisions, destruction, and death that has been unleashed.

We need good leaders with that core sense of self that Ed Friedman writes about in A Failure of Nerve, leaders guided by values and principles considerate of both rights and responsibilities; leaders who can engage in dialogue with those with whom they differ, who are committed to an honest quest for truth.

We need good leaders with integrity and empathy, who desire resolution rather than insurrection, who are capable of holding the tension in this in-between time and space, and who can help resolve conflict rather than exploit it for their own narcissistic gain.

We need good people. Right now, we need more leaders who understand what it really means to be good.

headshot of Katherine Tyler Scott

Before beginning her tenure at KI ThoughtBridge, Katherine Tyler Scott founded and served as President of Trustee Leadership Development, Inc., a resource center for governance leaders and not-for-profit organizations. Katherine is a past chair of the ILA board and convener of the ILA Applied Leadership Global Learning Community. She previously directed the Lilly Endowment Leadership Education Program, a statewide leadership education initiative for professionals in youth service, and she also developed leadership programs and resources for the Community Leadership Association.

If you find these reflections to be of value in your work and life, please consider becoming part of ILA’s leadership community.