What Quintessential Leadership Looks Like: Taking AND Staying on the High Road

Posted: July 30, 2015 in Qualities of a Quintessential Leader, Quintessential Leadership
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Quintessential leaders strive to consistently take AND stay on the high roadTaking the high road is an idiom that describes a person who is consistently making the conscious choice to travel exclusively on the highest moral and ethical ground, regardless of what anyone else and everybody else is doing.

Taking the high road also characterizes a person who unwaveringly chooses to endeavor to do the right thing all the time, no matter what the circumstances.

Taking the high road is a choice. It is a choice that every human being on this planet decides to do or not do in every single situation we face. Taking the high road is a choice that quintessential leaders are committed to making continuously in every area of their lives for their entire lives.

Although we all fall short in consistently taking the high road at times, quintessential leaders distinguish themselves from everyone else by their determination, their tenacity, and their dedication to always taking the high road.

More than that, though, quintessential leaders work – and this is, I believe, the hardest work each of us has the choice to do in our lives, because it is the work of continual monitoring of and continual application of self-control in our attitudes, our motives, our thoughts, our words, and actions – diligently and tirelessly to also stay on the high road.

Before we look at what taking AND staying on the high road looks like in quintessential leaders, let’s see what the opposite looks like (unquintessential leaders).

Stop right now and think about everything you’ve heard, seen, read, thought, said, and done today up to this point. Everything. Do all of these things, added and averaged, tend toward taking AND staying on the high road?

If we’re unflinchingly honest – and that, my friends, is part of taking AND staying on the high road and unflinching honesty is scarce to non-existent in everyone and everywhere today – the answer will be “no.”

We humans tend to to like the low road because it appeals to the basest parts of our nature and it doesn’t make any demands on us.

We can be as dishonest, greedy, vitriolic, accusatory, condemning, condescending, mean, blaming, disrespectful, profane, and all-around-nasty as we want to be because that’s, unfortunately, the easiest way for us to be.

Sadly, it makes us feel smug and victorious to lie and get away with it, steal and get away with it, accuse others, condemn others, to put everybody in their place, to say whatever is on our mind however we want to say it (“and if they don’t like, well they can just get over it, because it’s our right!”) and never apologize for anything we say or do.

It’s all around us. Everybody’s doing it. And when we take the low road and stay on it, we fit in with everyone. We are popular. We get the kudos. We get the laughs. We get the “attaboys.” We get the praise and the glory.

And these things, which have kicked our natural tendancy as humans to be narcissistic, selfish, and self-absorbed into high gear with the ubiquitous intrusion of technology into our 24/7 lives, are incredibly powerful motivators to continue to choose to take and stay on the low road.

I’m a keen observer of people and human nature. There’s very, very little that I miss.


Because instead of talking, I listen. To every word. To every context. To every nuance.

Instead of engaging in frenzied action to constantly be the center of attention, I carefully watch actions and behavior and I process and I analyze.

Just this week, I can think of three public figures who have clearly taken and decided to stay on the low road. The interesting thing that I have observed in the process is that we all, with the exception of the rare quintessential leader here and there, identify with and side with these people because we’ve decided to take and stay on the low road ourselves.

Tom Brady takes the low roadThe first public figure is Tom Brady, quarterback for the New England Patriots. The quarterback of a football team is in a leadership position (but that seldom means they are quintessential leaders).

Brady was involved in deflating footballs for the Super Bowl game in January 2015. His team won the game. 

Whether the deflation of the footballs actually had anything to do with the outcome of the game is irrelevant. The obvious cheating to put the game in the Patriots – and Brady’s – favor, however, is totally relevant.

The NFL found Brady complicit in the attempt to throw the game and suspended him for four games in the 2015-2016 season.

Now Brady is claiming to be the victim and is blaming everyone else for the deflated footballs. He’s saying he cooperated with the investigation – in spite of the fact that he destroyed the cellphone he used in that game – and the NFL is not being fair.

And a lot of the public agrees with him. Despite the cheating, the dishonesty, and the finger-pointing, most of the public believes that this is not a big deal and that it’s certainly not a punishable offense, and that Brady is getting a raw deal being suspended from playing four games.

The majority of us have chosen to take the low road and stay on it.

Donald Trump takes the low road in everything he is, says, and doesA second public example of someone taking the low road and staying on it is Donald Trump, one of the 2016 Republican presidential candidates.

Trump, who epitomizes narcissism, is intentionally and brutally offensive, using sarcasm, finger-pointing, condemning, and outright lying in both his actions and his words.

There is no filter on his mouth: everything he says is exactly what he thinks and believes and he doesn’t care who or what is on the receiving end of it.

And he doesn’t see anything wrong with his behavior, so he never backs away, never backs down, and never, ever apologizes for anything. Pride and arrogance are often an integral part of taking and staying on the low road.

And, yet, incongruously Trump has vaulted to the top of the list of most political polls, both on the national and state level.

John Heilemann, a co-managing editor for Bloomberg Politics, did a focus group meeting with Trump supporters in New Hampshire this week to find out why they supported him. I saw a short excerpt this morning, and one of the prevailing reasons is “because he’s one of us.”

That’s an incredible admission that these people probably weren’t even aware they were making. But what they said was, in essence, we’ve chosen to take and stay on the low road and we like Trump because he’s made the same choice we have.  

Mike Huckabee chooses to take the low road to get a spot in the Republican debateA final public example is ordained Baptist minister and former Arkansas governer Mike Huckabee, another of the 2016 Republican presidential candidates. 

It appears that Gov. Huckabee is so desperate to make the final cut of participants in the first Republican debate on August 6, 2015 that he is willing to follow Donald Trump’s example in choosing to take and stay on the low road.

Earlier this week, he declared that the pending nuclear deal between the United States and Iran is equivalent to the actions of the Germans’ genocide of the Jews in the Holocaust: ““This president’s foreign policy is the most feckless in American history. It is so naive that he would trust the Iranians. By doing so, he will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.”

While there are legitimate concerns with this pending agreement that should be addressed, Gov. Huckabee’s headline-grabbing hyperbolic and incendiary language represents the low road. The high road would have been to actually talk about the real issues regarding this agreement and how he would rectify those.

What is even more damning for Gov. Huckabee, however, is that in 2008 he proposed the exact same path of this agreement according to the Des Moines Register: “Huckabee wrote in Foreign Affairs that ‘all options’ must be put on the table in dealing with Iran to avoid a military confrontation with them. He said at the time that the real winners in such a war would be the Sunni extremists who attacked America on 9-11. Iran is a Shiite Muslim nation.

Huckabee called then for the establishment of a sanctions regime against Iran coupled with direct negotiations with that country.”

Despite a strong negative backlash to his inflammatory and contradictory statement, Gov. Huckabee has continued on the low road by refusing to backtrack on the harshness of his rhetoric and to acknowledge the inconsistency with his position seven years ago.

Now that we’ve seen what choosing to take and stay on the low road looks like, what does choosing to take AND stay on the high road look like? Since we are striving to be quintessential leaders in every area of our lives, it’s not only important to know what we should not do, but also what we should do.

Quintessential leaders choose to take AND stay on the high road by:

  • Always thinking before we speak, making sure our words are not sarcastic, condemning, mean, accusatory, disrespectful, condescending, bombastic, insensitive, and hurtful. A lot of times that process means simply being quiet until we have the time and perspective to deal with our thoughts and our words properly.
  • Always considering how our words and actions will affect other people. The simple test we run everything against is “will what I want to say or do hurt, harm, or help other people?” Notice that quintessential leaders are outward-focused (they are never “it’s all about me“), which is a high-road characteristic. If it will hurt or harm other people (dishonesty, greed, stealing, crushing someone with less strength just because we can, etc.), then we don’t do or say it. If it will help others, then we ensure that we do or say it in a way that is respectful, kind, gentle, generous, and completely without strings attached.
  • Always refusing to choose to stoop to the low-road level that others may choose to take by refusing to respond at all by arguing, retaliating, attacking, badmouthing, either to their faces or behind their backs, and seeing if we can go even lower than they are going.

The high road is at times a difficult choice for all of us to make because it seems we’re naturally wired for the low road. But quintessential leaders are those rare people who choose to fight and struggle and wrestle with themselves (and this goes on almost constantly at an internal level) to take AND stay on the high road.

It is a lifelong war that we all lose battles in from time to time. But winning this war should be the goal that every quintessential leader has. And the only way we can win it is to do it.

We each need to look deep inside our own lives to see whether we have chosen to try to take AND stay on the high road everywhere, every time, all the time in our lives.

Or have we chosen to take and stay on the low road for all the wrong reasons?

How are we doing?



  1. […] leadership positions. Increasingly, this triumph of ego over knowledge (I’ve discussed this before) is applauded, embraced, and […]


  2. […] is Donald Trump, who would be the Republican nominee. The other is Hillary Clinton, who would the Democrat […]


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