The crisis in leadership

Beyond national borders, looming challenges are shaping the future climate change, the forces of globalisation, the scramble for resources, failed and failing states, terrorism with global reach, humanitarian crises, the reordering of global power centers, the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Any – or all – of these challenges, according to General Tony Zinni, former commander-in-chief of CENTCOM of the United States, could quickly morph into crises with world-shaking effects.

What have our leaders done to take on these challenges? Do they even understand them? The 4-star general would ask.

True leaders get positive things done. That is their essential job description. They make sure that institutions and organisations they lead are headed in good direction, and they leave them better off than they found them.

Today, there are too many “bottom liners” – guys who are less interested in leading their people to long-term success than in trying to manage enterprises to quick self-serving gain by manipulating processes and financial results. Such actions may work in the short term, but they will not sustain and ensure success into the future.

Strong motivations and improved work ethic are always good but they will not get us through tough patches. We must deliver through competent and innovative leadership Gen Zinni will reiterate. In today’s competitive world, ‘delivery’ is much more difficult than it ever was in the past.

Today, too many leaders fail to get the job done. Too many fail to deliver. Too many fail to leave their organization better off than they found them. Most an African nation’s political and economic leaders seem impotent to address the challenges and crises that their nations face. People are desperate. They want their leaders to do something and our leaders seem confused or blind to what is going on out there and helplessness to deal with.

We need long-range answers to big problems. We need fresh ideas. We have not been getting them. In the view of Gen Zinni, the causes of the crisis are not simple, and the crisis is not limited to the United States where he writes from. The causes are complicated. The crisis worldwide.

You cannot just take a good person, a good potential leader, and throw him or her into dysfunctional thorny patch and expect success. We have bad, outdated business models in too many industries. Throwing potentially good leaders into such situations without changing the model is a recipe for repeated failure.

Today’s world is vastly changed from the world of 30 years ago – vastly changed from the world that leaders worldwide grew up in to understand, and master complex confluence of swiftly morphing events, conditions, and circumstances. The crisis of leadership starts, at its heart, as a crisis in adapting to a new world.


Failure to Adapt

1918, 1945, and 1989 were years of BIG change futurists often observe. They not only marked the end of three wars, two hot and one cold, they launched seismic shifts in the global environment – world-shaking transitions in political, security, economic, and social systems.

The effects generated by these changes unfolded through many dimensions – in technology, in economics, in means and techniques of production, in the use and availability of resources, and in relations among nation-states – and created openings for the formulation of new sets of global rules and systems and new world environments.

The two earlier global reorderings (the world wars) were followed by decades-long period of consolidation and development. There seems to be no end of the current reordering and we see no end to astonishing, rapid-fire changes which have generated new and ever greater security and economic challenges. The biggest of the changes has been globalization in all its many and complex manifestations.

Globalisation has produced new international interactions and the breaking down of borders, a new global explosion of information technology and information access, mass migration and the identity issues they create, failures of governance and economic systems, the rapid urbanisation of rural societies, and the unchecked abuse of the environment.

These and many other emerging forces are generating a more diverse and seriously stressed global society.

Maybe because this reordering was not set off by a big bang but a subtle deflation of the Soviet superpower might, maybe because the changes are numerous and relentless in coming; maybe because they are impacting virtually every facet of the world’s ways of functioning – whatever the reason, leaders are trapped in the past order and helpless to act effectively in the new one. At times they seem overwhelmed and in denial even of its existence. They have been unable to adapt.

System thinking suggests that you cannot apply simply linear approaches to complex systems. If we don’t understand this new world, then we will not understand how to survive, thrive, and prosper in it. If we fail to adapt, fail to innovate, fail to develop and grow, we will find ourselves forever reacting and struggling. How do we adapt? When do we realize that the old models do not work anymore?


The New Leader

In the 40 years of service in the Marine Corps, Gen Zinni has led and been led in desperate combat, in tough and complicated crises and in other highly charged and difficult situations. He has known true leadership when its absence would have been catastrophic. He has taught leadership courses and after retirement, consulted and lectured on leader development for business and other organisations. And he has personally witnessed many world leaders work through difficult decisions in war and in conflict resolution.

What is leadership? The General has asked himself again and again. “What must a person do to become a true leader or to turn others into true leaders. Does knowing leadership personally, reflecting on it intellectually, and experiencing it intimately make leadership easy to understand? No he answers emphatically.

Leadership is not mysterious. At its core is the very simple. It is the ability to get people to do what we want them to do. It is hard to argue with that statement, yet most of us intuitively feel that it is not enough.

True leadership demands other essential qualities. To the core statement – “get people to do what we want them to do – most leadership scholars would add something like: (a) in an ethical, moral, responsible way; (b) that they enjoy, feel good about, and feel fulfilled in doing; (c) that builds a cohesive and well-functioning team; (d) that brings respect and admiration for the leader and the organisation; and (e) that brings success to the enterprise.

“Get people to do what we want them to do” focuses on the interaction of leading and following. It assumes leaders possess both authority and power over the led. The led acknowledge the leader’s capacity to lead and allow the leader to direct and guide their actions.

The first of the corollary elements points to the leader as the conscience of the organisation. It focuses on the principles the leader should follow, the positive traits he should possess, and on his personal responsibility for the outcome of the act of leadership.

Results flowing out of true leadership should be positive and not destructive. The second focuses on the effects of the led. It is hoped that in following a leader, the led will achieve pride, enjoyment, loyalty, and a sense of accomplishment.

The third focuses on building a team, an organization that exceeds the sum of its parts because of the motivation, skill, and direction provided by the leader. The fourth focuses on the positive reaction of the led, the leader’s superiors, and all other stakeholders in the enterprise should feel toward the leader. The last focuses on a successful outcome. Leading that doesn’t accomplish the mission, achieve the bottom line, or gain the objective in the most effective and efficient way is, after all, pointless.

These elements are basic and timeless and can give us a good starting point for understanding leadership. It is impossible to imagine any responsible transaction involving leaders that doesn’t include each of these elements as foundation.

By Capt. Sam Addaih (Rtd.)

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