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The New Crucible of Leadership

Posted by Mark Bennett on May 5, 2012

A crucible is used to burn off the unwanted materials and leave behind the stuff you want. Today’s world has the potential to transform leadership into more what it should be by burning away the old trappings that undermine its real purpose.

In today’s fear-dominated world, some people ask, “Where are all the leaders?” One answer was provided by James S. Rosebush in his March HBR post: Why Great Leaders are in Short Supply. Rosebush makes some excellent points about leadership and what has been eroding the ability for there to be “Great Leaders”, but I took issue with his premise, or at least felt he was misdirecting us a bit with the term “Great.”

For there is no shortage of leaders in the world. We are certainly witnessing the utter failure of “Great” leaders, and it doesn’t look like there are many alternatives fit to replace the current crop. So, yes, you could say there is a shortage of “Great Leaders.” But how much do we need, let alone want that kind? History shows us that at the very least, it’s been a high stakes game for the general population. That’s why there is hope for the future, I think, which comes from us growing away from needing “Great” leaders as much as we did previously.

Be careful what you wish for

The reason Rosebush gives why great leaders are in short supply is that in the past, they had the advantages of:

  • Privileged access to information
  • The reflected glory of their institutions
  • Broadly shared foundational principles

All I can say is, thank goodness those “advantages” are (hopefully) in decline. We don’t need, nor want, leaders who rely on those artifices to get into or stay in power.

Yes, there is still privileged information out there, and it could actually be growing, since all information is growing at an incredible rate. But it does appear that more information that was once privileged is now becoming publicly accessible. Of course, the information is a complete mess, but that’s always been the case throughout history – anyone who thought they had a lock on what was really going on was usually proven wrong. We now need leaders who can help us figure out what the information means and what questions to ask next. Hint: it won’t be the leaders who tell us.

Rosebush asks if it’s the institutions themselves, or their leaders that have caused such a decline in respect and trust of institutions, and as a result, the leaders. The answer is yes – the institutions shape the leaders and vice versa. Once corruption sets in, it’s very hard to extract and no matter how much an institution claims they’ve weeded out the bad apples, it takes a long, long time to regain public trust. To me, that’s the time when you should consider literally putting the institution more in the public “trust.” That is, close the separation that grew over time between the institution (whether actually public or “private”) and the public it was supposed to serve. This is where more leaders throughout the public can step up to make that happen.

Nothing riles up a discussion more than identifying “shared foundational principles”, especially in a world where diverse cultures and norms have more and more interaction. However, if you look at it more as a process as opposed to an event, it helps us see where leaders are really needed. It’s not about appeasing those whose values differ from yours, but it’s also not about extremism, unilateral actions, and ultimatums. Those are the crutches of demagogues, who shroud themselves in the “will of the people.” Again, it’s the leaders we are *all* capable of being that are called for here. We are responsible for our own thinking about personal and shared values – not some “Great” leader who tells you what to believe because all your neighbors believe it. Everyone is the world is your neighbor now, so how can a “Great” leader make that claim anymore?

We don’t get fooled again?

No, all of these “advantages” of the past were frequently nothing more than mechanisms for those in power to stay in power. So, good riddance, as those advantages really weren’t doing the public very much good. They were the Emperor’s New Clothes that are now getting stripped away by increased access to information, rethinking the relationship between institutions and the public they are supposed to serve, and how it’s up to the people of this planet to get to broadly shared foundational principles.

It won’t be easy, but it’s the kind of leaders that help create positive change in these transitioning areas that we need. The good news is that there are many out there already doing it and plenty more who can. What can we do to help encourage them?

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