Where Have All the Leaders Gone?, part 1 of 6

Today, in almost every sector of society, we are facing a crisis of leadership. This cry is heard in newspapers, magazines, and TV debates and at dinner tables across the nation.

In the realm of business in particular, the need for leadership has become crucial. When we compare our country’s economic performance with that of countries like China and Germany, it’s clear that we have been losing ground and that despite the ravages of the recent economic crisis, over the last 10 years, our competitors have been doing better.

In the U.S., we are contending with wave after wave of jobs moving overseas, markets that whip up and down, and energy prices rising at an unprecedented rate. As business leaders, we are troubled by the regular announcements of once-proud companies being sold, broken up, or downsized. There is a nagging sense that something is not right as we face still more layoffs and plant closings while profits go up.

[wcm_restrict]Some of this is due to the changing nature of our economy, but we are nonetheless left wondering, Who and where are the leaders of this new business world? This concern is only getting stronger as, over the last few years, we have witnessed massive fraud and deception and watched in shock and disgust as once-powerful business leaders did the perp walk into courtrooms across the land.

We all recognize that organizations need strong leaders—people who can shape a vision of what is possible, enroll others in supporting that vision, and put strategies and structures in place to make that vision a reality. Over the past few years, the ever-increasing pressure on companies to become more competitive has placed the spotlight on leadership. Thousands of books and articles have been written on the topic, and leadership-training courses continue to proliferate – which tells us that no one has a consistent, coherent means to develop leaders.

All this attests to two central breakdowns in business today: 1) The need for a type of leadership that can be developed, expanded, and modified as the situation demands, and 2) the need for a unifying interpretation that allows for the development of leadership as a competence.

Below I address the issue of how leadership is generated and explain how it can be viewed as an area of design and learning – which is the only way we’ll produce the leaders needed to transform our companies and our economy.

Redefining Leadership

If the last 10 years have taught us anything about leadership, it’s what doesn’t work, or at least what no longer works. The business world has changed dramatically over the last few decades, and even over the last few years. In today’s fast-paced, information-driven, highly connected business world, most American workers are no longer paid to make things. Instead they generate value through effective coordination with others to satisfy customer concerns – and that has changed the game.

What Leadership Is Not

Historically, there have been two ways of thinking about leadership. First, there is the idea that leadership is the capacity to give orders. Many people imagine a leader as a command-and-control military general. In this interpretation, leaders seem to be people who get things done. As with many common-sense distinctions, this image is somewhat valid. Leaders do modify how people act. However, when we limit our view of leadership to the act of barking out orders, we produce a narrow understanding of what it really means to be a leader. Leaders don’t just get things done; they are also the inventors of what can be done.

The second view of leadership holds it as an extraordinary capacity arising from an individual’s exceptional character traits – such as vision, charisma, foresight, boldness, the ability to inspire others, and so forth. By this definition, leadership seems to be something you’re born with. You either have it or you don’t have it, in which case there is not much you can do about it. Within this understanding, leadership cannot be learned or designed.

A New Interpretation of Leadership

If leadership is to be an area of learning and design, so that we can actually transform American companies and our economy, we need to adopt a different approach. We need to recognize that in business, the central concern of leadership is the overall strategic direction a company will take, as well as the development and growth required for its continued survival, well-being, and prosperity. Management, by contrast, is focused primarily on coordinating action to fulfill objectives established by leaders.

Leadership’s concern for the future requires answering certain key questions about an organization, including:

  • Who are we? What is our vision and mission?
  • In which direction is the business world moving? How is it changing?
  • Where do we want to be five to 10 years from now, and how do we want people to view our organization?
  • What kind of organization do we need to build in order to become who we want to be in the future?
  • What kind of alliances will we need to make?
  • What type of management practices do we need to put in place?
  • What competences do our people need to help us fulfill our mission? And how do we develop their skills and careers?

Such questions are the foundation for what we call the conversation of leadership. Great leaders continuously engage in this conversation, asking themselves questions such as these and committing themselves to the answers they generate.

To effectively engage in this conversation, leaders typically take on the following five roles and responsibilities:

  • Reading the world and creating a vision
  • Declaring a mission
  • Making alliances
  • Creating followership
  • Managing the action cycle


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About the Author

Chris Majer, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of The Human Potential ProjectChris Majer, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of The Human Potential Project, is the author of The Power to Transform: Passion, Power, and Purpose in Daily Life (Rodale), which teaches the strategies corporate, military, and sports leaders have used to positively transform themselves and their organizations in a way readers can adept to their own lives and professions. He may be reached at www.humanpotentialproject.com.

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