There are plenty of leaders around, no doubt. But how do you define a “good” leader?
Do you ever get tired of hearing about leadership? In case you’ve just returned from living on Mars, talk of leadership is everywhere these days. My favorite fast food place sponsors the annual “Chick-fil-A Leadercast,” and Willow Creek, a Chicagoland megachurch, hosts the “Global Leadership Summit” each year. Colleges offer degrees in leadership, and entire magazines and journals are devoted to the topic. Countless articles in popular publications like Forbes offer the “Ten Communication Secrets of Great Leaders” or some other such headline. A guy named John Maxwell has created a small business empire by writing really short books about leadership. And yes, the august publication you hold in your hands publishes its annual list of 40 Leaders Under Forty.
Everywhere you look, people are talking about leadership. You can’t escape it. As a society, we’ve elevated leadership to what amounts to a place of worship—the ideal we strive to achieve. So why does there seem to be such a dearth of good leaders around?
Judging by recent polls, just about everyone agrees that our “leaders” in Washington are awful, regardless of your politics. If you read the news, the leadership exhibited by corporate America seems to focus mainly on greed and corruption. With all the incessant banter about leadership, why on earth don’t we see amazing, awe-inspiring leaders all over the place? I would venture to say (though I have no scientific data to support this conclusion) that we live in a time in which the ratio of great leaders in our society to the masses of people jabbering about leadership has reached an all-time low.
So what’s the problem? Is our concern about leadership a response to a perceived lack of good leaders? Or perhaps, counter-intuitively, is our lack of leaders somehow caused by our heightened concern over concepts of leadership? Or, maybe there really are tons of amazing leaders, and I don’t know what I’m talking about. (Which seems unlikely, given the aforementioned polls and media coverage.)
It seems that one major problem in this discussion is the way we define good and bad leaders. No doubt, there are plenty of leaders around. A leader is simply someone who leads others, and they are a dime a dozen. What the leadership industry attempts to do, however, is make us into “good” leaders. And therein lies the rub—who the heck knows how to define a good leader?
What makes a good leader varies widely depending on whom you ask. The aforementioned Forbes article, “Ten Communication Secrets of Great Leaders,” says that leaders must have empathy for their followers, build trust and be good listeners. Undoubtedly, the followers would like that, but who says those qualities make these leaders good at getting results?
Likewise, it is often said that a great leader inspires those around him or her “to catch a vision” and “work toward a shared goal.” That’s swell, but many of us know from firsthand experience that the visionaries are not always great at one-on-one interaction with their followers. (See my article on Steve Jobs in last year’s “Leadership” issue of iBi for one example.)
The truth is, nearly all the discussion of leadership floating around out there is actually a discussion of values. Do you value the feelings and opinions of those around you? Then current thinking would say you have a positive leadership trait. Do you value self-sacrifice and not asking others to do that which you aren’t willing to do yourself? Congratulations, you have another characteristic of a good leader, according to the leadership industry.
Have there been many leaders who’ve accomplished a lot of things over the years who didn’t give a whip about those values, or any other values besides their own accumulation of wealth, status or power? You bet. So if you can succeed without worrying too much about values, then what’s the point of all this leadership talk?
The point is that we as a society have moved beyond a utilitarian view of leadership, where the end results are the only things that matter, into a framework that says, “Yes, your results matter, but the manner in which you arrive at those results also matters.”
It is no coincidence that much of today’s leadership punditry comes from religious organizations (or organizations/individuals who espouse religious conviction). Such institutions have long been at the forefront of arguing that the values you hold and the manner in which you act are more important than the results of your actions. However, the preaching of values in leadership has extended into mainstream business literature and become a common line of thinking for today’s leaders.
When you look at the sad state of leadership in certain parts of society, much of the problem can be traced back to a lack of values. Thus, I submit that teaching our young people to not only be successful leaders, but to be leaders with the kind of values we want to encourage, is sorely needed. iBi