The world is in desperate need of leaders. And not just people whose warm bodies can be appointed to leadership positions, but genuine, results driven, ethical, compassionate, competent, committed people who know how to set a vision and goals and can produce positive results with a team.
Sadly, we have either never figured out, or we have lost the recipe for developing leaders. It is estimated that by 2025, 75% of the workforce will be classified as Millennials. Pretty much none of them will have been taught or mentored by a qualified leader. Where are they to learn leadership skills and disciplines? According to Kouzes and Posner (Learning Leadership) 86 percent of the respondents to a World Economic Forum perceive a leadership crisis across the world. Most companies, if they are being honest, will also say that they are sorely lacking in leadership bench strength.
Various authors have postulated reasons. One author (Jack Zenger) noted that worldwide the average participant in leadership training classes was 42, while the average age of supervisors was 33. Is a late start part of the problem? Is it assumptions about leadership being for the select few who are naturally inclined to it? Certainly people of all walks of life seek the best in their professionals, whether their doctor, dentist, financial advisor, real estate broker, or teacher. Shouldn’t the same be true when they seek leaders? The problem seems to be where to find them.
When you consider the various surveys about who the most trusted segments of our society are, it is frightening to see that lawyers, politicians, journalists, and business people all rank lower than your plumber. (Psychology Today) Can you follow a leader that you simply do not trust? Around the world people of all skills and nationalities are trusting their leadership less and less.
Is leadership no longer an honorable title? Many surveys have shown that the aspirations of many people include being in a leadership role. Is that because they seek the power and prestige, or because they genuinely believe they could lead well? Certainly, by today’s standards, the bar has not been set exceptionally high. Perhaps they only want to get out from under a person in a leadership role who has no idea how to lead themselves, let alone a whole team.
Are our expectations of leaders too high? Are we chasing away those who might be good leaders by the unreasonable expectation that they be perfect in every way? And what level of imperfection is acceptable in our leaders? Sadly we seem to have accepted those in leadership roles who are philanderers, narcissists, liars, fraudsters, and those who believe that 100% of leadership is charisma. But why? Are those the best we can find or is it perhaps that we no longer equate high moral standards with a person’s ability to lead? Or is it because, as the saying goes, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely? It is the rare person who can handle power without letting it corrupt him or her. It was Abraham Lincoln who said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
This gap between the need for true leaders and the available supply creates a huge opportunity for those who believe they have the secret formula for developing leaders. Sadly, too few understand all the elements of leadership and thus they leave the development of their students with great gaps. This causes the field to become cluttered with charlatans which does nothing to solve the problem; it only exacerbates it. With no widely accepted objective standards to evaluate leaders, it becomes a case of “anything goes” and the default is to the accumulation of power to aid the presumed leader’s constituents, often at the expense of everyone else. Just look to any politician to validate this.
Here’s the point, however. YOU are already equipped to lead. You might not be practicing it, and you might lack confidence (especially since there are so few models to emulate), but you have it within yourself to develop as a leader – a true leader, a proper leader, a competent leader, or as I like to say – a sustained leader. This broad range of language shows that we have not yet found the right words for distinguishing between those who lead well and those who merely assume leadership roles.
Once immersed in a leader’s role, you either sink or swim. As you learn to swim in the leadership pool, your confidence and self-worth are enhanced. You begin to swim in larger pools, lakes, and ultimately oceans. With any luck, you have strengthened your character to the point that you do not succumb to the lust for power or the attraction to abusing that power.
The younger generations today seek challenging assignments and will quickly flee from any perception that their present position lacks growth opportunities. It seems that offering real leadership development might just be the carrot that will keep the brightest among them to stick around. Unfortunately too few organizations are equipped with sufficient leadership already to “spare” the development of others, and in fact, even if they try, without understanding the many elements of leadership, will fail, or worse, fail to prepare people to lead and then put them in a leadership role anyway. This only makes things worse.
What is the solution? First, every organization has to take a very honest assessment of themselves and the level of leadership competence that is held by those in their organization. They also must agree to a proper standard of leadership measurement that goes beyond charisma, arrogance, and sales volume. They then must establish a proper approach to bridging that gap. They must then give every person on the team challenging assignments, opportunities for study and growth, and require that they practice leadership disciplines very deliberately.
The Sustained Leadership WBS identified 229 elements of leadership, and every person who approaches leadership development comes with their own set of the necessary elements. In some cases, there are things they must unlearn before they can replace that with a positive leadership skill or trait. To truly learn these elements, they should not have all 229 dumped on them at one time. They should conduct a self-assessment of themselves personally with the assistance of a leader mentor, if you have any. If not, bring some in. Then they should pick 3 to 5 leadership elements and develop a personal action plan to understand what they need to know and do. And then, and this is the hard part, BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE.
There is no question that leadership is lacking across all of society’s institutions. There is equally no question that many aspire to lead if they only had the proper development. Leaders must demonstrate good character and all that entails. They must be competent in a practical trade, craft, or area of service. They must understand compassion and the nature of their team members. They must learn to communicate effectively, and they must be solidly committed to the vision and the goals of the organization. Amidst all of that, they must develop a level of competency in all 229 identified leadership elements and assume the challenges and risks that come with growth. Only then will we begin to address the amazing gap between the need for great leaders and the very extreme lack of leaders ready, willing, and able to assume the leader’s role with any team. It’s not too late, but it is probably much later than we think.