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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Where The Heck Are They? A Leadership Crisis?

European debt crisis, slumbering world economy, failing companies, deteriorating schools. It seems very popular to say that we are in a time of leadership crisis. Many of today’s leaders do not measure up to their tasks, their responsibilities, the various pressures, and certainly not to our expectations it seems. I hear the reference to bad or weak leadership everywhere: among parents, in businesses, in politics, on leadership blogs, and in publications of renowned research institutions.  

At the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) in Cambridge a survey from 2010 concludes that 68% of Americans believe that there is a leadership crisis in the country. The confidence of Americans in the country’s leaders remains below-average for the third consecutive year as assessed by the HKS and the Merriman River Group in their National Leadership Index poll. The study revealed that only four out of thirteen sectors scored favorable on ‘inspiring above confidence’. Those sectors are the military, the Supreme Court, non-profits, and medical institutions. I leave the theorizing and concluding to you, but I do see the need for strong, passionate, honest, humble, courageous, and wise leaders everywhere. I briefly want to mention three factors that seem to make effective leadership ever so challenging. First, the velocity and volume of issues that our present and future leaders are confronted with in this increasingly interconnected and complicated world are substantial. Second, many leaders seem either overly concerned or pretty oblivious to the reactions of their stakeholders. Neither generally does their leadership much good. Third, it seems most comfortable for many of us to be pointing at leadership in times of chronic underperformance, raging wars, economic downturn, and our persistent inability to feed and water the world. I can safely conclude that leadership is definitely not a leisurely walk in the park. But is leadership all there is to it?

As I recently tweeted, I certainly do not have all the answers, not by any means on anything, but I sure do like to question my own reasoning and acting and I love to pose questions. In regards to failing leadership I ask you and myself the following two questions, that will point more to you and me than to our country’s and our organizations’ leaders:

è Could there be a correlation between below standard leadership and below standard followership? Of the increasing number of people bringing followership to our attention I’d like to quote Dr. John Pitron (Lockheed Martin, University of Phoenix, University of Florida), who states that “followership is leadership, and leadership should be viewed as it is: multidimensional and system thinking.” No leadership without decent followership, no followership without decent leadership. The two are intertwined in intriguing ways, and rather than focusing on what comes first – which is too linear and would not be a system approach – I will list the  15 attributes that, according to R.E. Kelley in The power of followership: How to create leaders people want to follow and followers who lead themselves (1992), define exemplary followership:

1. Think for themselves

2. Go above and beyond the job

3. Support the team and the leader

4. Focus on the goal

5. Do an exceptional job on critical path activities related to the goal

6. Take initiative on increasing their value to the organization

7. Realize they add value by being who they are, their experiences and ideals

8. Structure their daily work and day-to-day activities

9. See clearly how their job relates to the enterprise

10. Put themselves on the critical path toward accomplishment

11. Make sure the tasks they are to perform are on the critical path

12. Review their progress daily or weekly

13. Increase their scope of critical path activities

14. Develop additional expertise

15. Champion new ideas.

And of course the big question to myself and to you: on which of these points can I improve my followership, and thereby, improve leadership?

è How much do all of use our influence (i.e. use our personal leadership qualities, unrelated to whether we have positional power or not) on ourselves, on the people we collaborate with, on the people we report to, on the people we lead, and on the people that might use us as role  models? In this respect I was recently heartened listening to former Medtronic CEO and author Bill George who shared his belief that the present and future generations will be better developed leaders with more heart, courage, and emotional intelligence. Back to the question: Do I lead in everyday life? Do I lead by example? Do I know and live my values and my purpose? Do you?

According to David Gergen (public service professor of public leadership at HKS) the survey represents yet another cry from the American public for more effective leadership in many fields.  If I think about this it’s kind of ironic considering the fact that more money than ever seems to have been spent on leadership development (the business that I also happen to be in) in the last two decades. So this all being said, I’d rather look at my own influence and that of the people close to me first. Sure, I do believe that we need more capable leaders (or better: we need more “bad weather leaders”). But we can complain and engage in wishful thinking all we want, I believe leadership is a matter for everyone. Just like tiny genetic switches create big differences so does every person, whether in an official leadership position or not, whether leading a soccer team or a Fortune 500 company, even though the stakes and responsibilities are incomparable, of course. So rather than to keep asking: Where are the inspiring leaders like Gandhi, M.L. King, J.F. Kennedy and others, I can make sure I do what I can to increase my personal leadership and instill the right values and beliefs. I can consciously work to model the right skills, choices, and attitudes to our children and anyone else willing to be influenced. That’s my passion and my plan, and at the same time, sure, leaders need to look at their daunting jobs and how to better prepare and perform.


The poll surveyed a demographically representative sample of 1,029 U.S. citizens with a margin of error of approximately 3.1 percent. The complete report is available online at: www.hks.harvard.edu/leadership

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