Magnanimity: The Call to Leadership is the Call to Greatness

Today’s guest blog comes from Chris Mann.

Everyone has a hunger to do something that matters — to be important in some indispensable way. We all want, and need, our lives to have purpose and meaning.

This is especially true of leaders. The leader though, strives for something more. The leader seeks greatness. Leadership and greatness are inextricably bound.

Greatness though, is often misunderstood. When I say greatness I am not referring to some self-aggrandizing desire, nor am I suggesting that every leader wants or needs to head an organization or movement. Indeed, I am not even trying to suggest that greatness refers to a certain level of influence or audience size.

I am talking about the virtue of magnanimity, which means, “greatness of soul.” The 20th century philosopher Joseph Pieper explained it as such,

“Magnanimity is the expansion of the spirit toward great things; one who expects great things of himself and makes himself worthy of it is magnanimous.”

Leadership and greatness are so closely tied that we could substitute the word “leadership” for “magnanimity” and “a leader” for “magnanimous” in the above quote and it would still make perfect sense.

Magnanimity and leadership start with the fundamental belief that you and I are made for greatness. That we have within us the capacity to be great men and women, and we can use the skills and talents we have to accomplish great things for the betterment of ourselves and the world around.

There are three things that keep a person back from this initial belief and acting on it.

The first is lack of self-knowledge. By this I mean that many people don’t realize that they are capable of greatness. They aren’t aware of just how high their ceiling is, how much talent and skill they have, or even that they have gifts at all. Also, many people know they are talented but assume that greatness is only for a chosen few.

This is false. Everyone can be, and ought to be, magnanimous. Everyone is called to greatness. To overcome this obstacle requires time in self-reflection, and the development of self-confidence.

The second hindrance to magnanimity is comfort. Mediocrity is comfortable. “Good enough” is comfortable. Doing what I’ve always done is comfortable. Under the radar is comfortable. Coasting is comfortable. Sitting on the couch letting the idiot box suck your brain out is comfortable. And it all feels nice.

And it all goes absolutely nowhere. Certainly not towards greatness. To move past comfort, one must recognize that the value of themselves, of their own greatness, outweighs the value of comfort.

The third obstacle is fear of failure. So many people I’ve spoken with have a sense, sometimes a very clear sense, of where their call to greatness lies, but don’t even start because they are worried that they can’t do it. Fear is paralyzing and self-fulfilling.

Magnanimity and leadership require action. The remedy to fear of failure is the courage to face the possibility of failure and to step out anyways.

I want to drill down just a bit into Pieper’s description of magnanimity, but first I need to address a common misunderstanding. A leader must be magnanimous, but a leader is also humble. Many people have a hard time reconciling a desire for greatness and the virtue of humility. Properly understood, these two virtues do not conflict, in fact they are intertwined.

Humility is simply an honest recognition of the qualities and characteristics that one possesses in relation to the world. Magnanimity takes that humble assessment and orients the self, with all its talent and giftedness, toward greatness. It is not humility to deny the talents and gifts that I truly have, or to express them in minimalist ways. Instead, the humble man recognizes that not all things are suited for him, and chooses to pursue only what is appropriate. But he never uses humility as an excuse to avoid seeking greatness according to his ability.

Continuing now with Pieper’s description of magnanimity we can see there are two aspects that he highlights. The first is the “expansion of the spirit toward great things.” The second is that the magnanimous man “expects great things of himself and makes himself worthy of it.”

The “expansion of the spirit toward great things” means a desire for a higher degree of perfection. Expansion relates to growth. It means that magnanimity is tied to a constant desire to grow closer to perfection. I am not a perfect, husband, father, son, employee, friend, or sibling. But magnanimity insists that I expand my spirit. Magnanimity insists that I grow towards greatness and perfection in these things. A leader needs this virtue because a leader must constantly strive to improve.

The next sentence of Pieper’s description takes it further; not only do I desire growth towards greatness and stretch for it, I expect it of myself. I assume that it will happen. This is the degree of confidence that a magnanimous man has. That is not to say that magnanimity in any way requires a go-it-alone sort of mentality. No one can maximize his or her potential alone. But magnanimity treats greatness as the foregone conclusion of the human person.

Finally, Pieper says the magnanimous man “makes himself worthy of it (greatness).” This refers to interior personal growth. And the qualities that one must grow in to be worthy of greatness are many of the same qualities that you hear thrown about in leadership circles such as, humility, understanding, compassion, courage, and patience.

A final thought: We have seen that magnanimity is indispensable to leadership itself; indeed it defines leadership to the degree that the two words are almost interchangeable. Magnanimity also defines a leader’s mission. Stephen R. Covey, a leadership expert best known for his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, says,

“My definition of leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves.”

What is that if not inspiring the virtue of magnanimity in others?

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