The End of Leadership: Is Leadership Dead?

I awoke in the middle of the night last night to a CNN breaking news text message that reported that the US consulate in Libya had been overtaken by protestors and that our Ambassador to Libya – a country where we have spent billions to liberate most recently — was killed by angry protestors with gunshot fire. When I awoke later in the morning, I searched again for reasons why the protestors were so angry, both in Libya and in Egypt. It turned out to be an unlikely cause: a Youtube video with 6,000 views.

The presidential campaigns here in America were already at odds with each other over the responses to these attacks, as both seemed to care more for staking out their position than resolving the problem. Our military and diplomatic personnel were struggling to find the appropriate response that demonstrated a commitment to justice and at the same time not further inflame the protests or endanger our diplomatic personnel overseas. As I watched the news, I was reminded once again that the issues our nation and our world are confronting seem so much larger than the capacities of any of our leaders to address them.

How do we address the impacts of climate change in a time of economic austerity? How do our leaders curb protests over a homemade Youtube video when the world is so connected, and a film maker with a handheld camera and a computer have so much power? Speaker of the US House of Representatives John Boehner said last night that he is not hopeful that he or the president can negotiate a budget deal to avoid the looming fiscal cliff and crippling national debt because the political parties and policy makers have become so unwilling to risk reelection and so reluctant to make difficult choices. Ethical and economic choices also face our business leaders in a time when shareholders and customers have more information about executives and companies than ever before, and leadership seems impossible.

Dov Siedman, CEO of LRN, told New York Times columnist Tom Friedman recently that, when launching the US space program, “President Kennedy ‘made a point of saying it would be done within the decade,” and ‘it was such a powerful, inspiring and big vision that it lived on, even though the president himself died before it was completed.’ It’s been a long time since any U.S. politician “launched the country on a journey of progress so inspiring that realizing it would have to extend beyond his term in office.’ ”

This election, notes Seidman, has largely been about “how to shift a tiny sliver of swing-state voters from one camp to the other, but no one is trying to elevate us, by taking us all, as a nation, on some daring new journey.”

It is for all of these reasons, and many more, that Harvard Kennedy School professor and leadership expert Barbara Kellerman writes in her latest book that we are, in the words of the title, at The End of Leadership.  If boards of regents can secretly organize to ouster a president of a major state university, and the faculty of Harvard University can organize a no confidence vote against its president for one controversial remark, then is academic leadership even possible? If followers can organize protests in Iran or Egypt by Twitter, if Wikileaks can disclose the communications of our diplomatic leaders, and if shareholders can call executives to account for unethical or risky investments, and if Super Pacs can spend limitless money to unseat or elect a political leader, Kellerman asks the obvious question, “Is leadership dead?”

This monumental and historic change in the nature and exercise of leadership is not without its merits. Unethical or unseemly behavior by political, religious and business leaders is now held in account. Stories spread rapidly across the Internet. Organization against corrupt leaders is now possible, even in unlikely countries like China and Russia. From Anthony Wiener to pedophile priests, we have seen the unraveling of sexual abuse, extravagance and greed that serves the common good of all of us. Protestors turned out in Moscow’s streets against the re-election of Vladimir Putin, and they overthrew dictators like Khadaffi and Mubarak that seemed impossible to unseat a decade ago. The world generally is better for it.

But with all of the merits of the Internet and the accountability it makes possible, can leaders still lead? If all the secrets have been exposed, if even rumors online can end careers, and if there is no such thing as “classified information,” have we followers made it an impossibility for our leaders to make decisions that sometimes require some level of secrecy or security to make them possible? For example, the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved because President Kennedy and President Kruschev exchanged secret messages that made guarantees to each other that could not have been shared in public due to the political risk on both sides. Today, those exchanges would find their way to the Internet before a deal could even be made. If Super PACs, partisan-leaning cable channels and political parties push all of us to partisan extremes, then how can our government leaders make compromises that are necessary for the operation of democratic government?

Leadership may be dead, and there certainly is a lot of evidence that points in that direction. But, even when the followers seem to be the ones in charge, it still seems to me that there is a hunger for leadership. Even when we are about to give up on politics, the church, or business, we keep searching for the leader who will take us to the Promised Land and not disappoint us. We reward those leaders who still seem capable of it, and it is more often than not character, rather than profit making ability, that inspires us to follow. Politicians who tell the truth about our most vexing problems often are rewarded with higher poll numbers and more votes. Business leaders who are models of personal and professional character still lead some of the most profitable companies. Religious leaders who lead quietly and serve the most vulnerable among us still receive our respect. Much has been written and said during this election cycle about how much we desire a leader who will just tell us the truth and make difficult decisions.

Leadership may not be dead, but it is at least different now than Plato, or Aristotle, or Machiavelli or Peter Drucker ever dreamed in their age. Leadership for the future will be characterized by three dynamics:

1. The leader of the future will put the customer, the voter and the employee at the center of the leader’s energies, perspectives, and strategies. Slick strategies to squeeze more revenue from the customer without attention to the customer’s experience won’t cut it in the age of Yelp, blogs and Twitter. Political ads that attempt to stretch falsehoods into partial truths won’t be effective in the age of The Daily Show and Factchecker.org. Corporate policies that negatively impact the employee won’t stand in a time when social networks are more powerful than unions. This will mean a complete re-wiring of the executive, the politician and the leader so that those being led are also the ones that we most serve.

2. The leader of the future will be equally accountable for both their personal and organizational ethics. The media may have chosen not to report what they knew about Kennedy’s personal dalliances. Business leaders of the past could take the corporate plane on a personal trip, or give themselves an extravagant raise when no one was looking. Today, and in the future, personal and organizational ethics will be intimately connected. Leaders who demonstrate character, and not merely those who claim it, will be the ones who will lead us. Social media and the Internet will root out inauthenticity. As one boss of mine used to say, “Personal character is the best privacy control available.”

3. The leader of the future will invest more in followers than in leaders. Leaders of academic institutions and corporations will ask whether it is leaders they should be developing for the future, or more principled and equipped followers. Corporate training dollars will find their way towards learning and development for non-leaders and non-managers. When we do invest in the development of leaders, we will invest in the holistic development of their character, their minds and their values, and not just in their ability to be profit making centers. Religious institutions will invest more in the spiritual development of their laity than in the perpetuation of a clergy system that holds on to expertise and authority. Nonprofits will invest more into the development of their donors and volunteers than into the growth of their staff or their facilities. But we will stop investing in leaders just because that’s what great institutions are supposed to do. We will intentionally develop leaders that develop followers.

Perhaps I am hopeful, but I do believe that leadership is still possible, and it definitely is still wanted. If it is to be possible in this age and the next, we have to change our expectations, and we have to switch our investments. Now that followers are in charge, we’re going to have to develop followers so that we can develop leaders. If we do not, then we are the end of leadership. And that will be the end of us.

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