Leadership domain has been dissected to infinitum, and yet it remains so ever elusive. As to the very essence of leadership, President Theodore Roosevelt’s implied vision of it, noted below, resonates with me.
On bold leadership with conviction, courage and character
It is not the critic who counts…. The credit belongs to the individual who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself/herself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. Theodore Roosevelt (From Speech at the Sorbonne, April 23, 1910)
On leader vs. manager
Good managers are seldom unreasonable, and it takes “unreasonable people” to do the sorts of great things that normal reasonable people wouldn’t consider until you showed them enough proof that it can be done. Vinod Khosla
Varied paths to leadership and unique styles
From these thoughts on leadership we move to stories of uncommon ascendency to it, such as the recent journey of Dawn Loggins from homeless to Harvard; or rise of Steve Jobs to the pinnacle of global leadership and in the process transforming, revolutionizing the world in his unique way. In terms of successful leadership styles, Harvard Professor Scott Snook asks the famous Machiavellian question: Is it better to be loved or feared in contrasting the leadership styles of two legendary successful basketball coaches, Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K) of Duke University and Bobby Knight of Texas Tech University. Both successful; one is loved; the other feared. As Professor Snook notes, different styles; similar results.
As parents, educators, custodians of great religions, heads of city, county, state, central governments, central banks, institutions of learning, running a class, court proceeding, military expedition, small coffee shop or a multinational global giant, in every walk of life, meticulously planned or unexpectedly thrust upon us, we face leadership challenges. We dismiss the notion that not everyone can be a leader, for leadership cannot be outsourced.
As noted above, leadership has been studied, dissected endlessly for centuries; thousands and thousands of books and research papers have been written on it. The domain has consumed brilliant minds over thousands of years. Way before the “how to guides” to leadership were imparted, books and essays sharing some defined number of “habits of successful leaders” were written, profound, deep thinkers more than 2,000 years were wrestling with this mystical art and science of leadership. From Plutarch’s Essays to Marcus Aurelius’ The Emperor’s Handbook, from Kautilya’s Arthasastra (perhaps written in 400 B.C.) to Machiavelli’s Prince, we find incomparable, rich treatise on leadership to serve as a foundation for further refinement to adapt their ideas to the present day world. Billions of dollars are spent each year on leadership development programs, and yet, leadership remains as intriguing and elusive domain as ever. There is no singular path to it or a clear winning style. Accession to it could range from hereditary, dynastical roots to meritorious rise from humble origins. Leadership fitness is contextual; style is path-dependent. Thus it is virtually impossible to replicate a leader’s style, as the life experiences of the leader that shape the style are difficult to duplicate.
Trust deficit in leadership – a chronic problem
But one thing is clear: a leader must earn trust of stakeholders to be successful. No one desires to or should do business with an untrustworthy leader or an organization lead by such leader. And there are innumerable, visionary, dedicated, smart, hardworking leaders in all fields, who earnestly strive to earn trust and unceremoniously lead their organizations to higher and higher heights with consistent exceptional results in an environment that is becoming increasingly volatile, complex, chaotic, almost ungovernable.
But there are also plenty of leaders, in all fields, including those who lead our most venerable institutions who exercise indiscretion, breach public trust, sometimes irreparably damage the basic fiber of society. Ink hardly dries before we learn of a new scandal, of indiscretion, of infidelity, of financial misappropriation, of egregious abuse of power. In their defense, some say we expect too much of leaders. We summarily reject that notion. We must have high expectations of our leaders, as we entrust in them so much power and resources, at a minimum we demand trustworthy conduct and optimal results. Error in leadership judgment can be condoned, but misconduct must be vigorously condemned with an outrage.
Latest Gallup Poll (see chart below) found a profound lack of public trust in leadership ranging from a low of 10% in the members of congress to only 21% in business leaders. An earlier Golin/Harris Annual Trust Survey corroborate a similar lack of trust in business leaders (17%). In its 2011 annual National Leadership Index survey conducted by the Centre for Public Leadership, Harvard noted that:
“The [survey] answers confirm beyond any doubt that American leaders, across all sectors of society, have an ever-dwindling reserve of trust and confidence to draw upon, as they try to tackle the nation’s challenges.”
Along with low trust in public leadership, alarmingly, public governance is also degenerating. In a thoughtful piece entitled, The worldwide democratic meltdown, Joshua Kurlantzick notes that:
“Opinion polling from many developing nations shows that not only is the quality of democracy declining, but also that public views of democracy are deteriorating as well.”
It has been often noted that trust in business leaders has declined in recent years. But the Gallup survey (chart below) documents roughly same low trust level in business over 37-year period. Trust deficit in business leadership appears to be a chronic problem, not just an isolated recent emerging issue. Kautilya, that ancient sage, thought leader and learned leadership coach, the incomparable teacher of the art of governance, the realistic, objective judge of human nature, observed over 2,400 years ago (Circa 400 B.C.) in Arthasastra distrust in traders/business and devised elaborate mechanism for oversight and monitoring business practices which might be somewhat lacking today.
Some leaders who bring disrepute to business seems to be ignoring the critical last part of the Milton Friedman’s famous observation, “there is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”
Educators and consultants admonish leaders about continued need for innovation to gain and retain sustained competitive advantages. So it is fair question to ask the educators: What specific steps they have taken and are taking in innovating ways to select and train leaders who can earn and command respect across the globe and of all stakeholders – leaders of courage and character President Roosevelt envisioned; why these so-called leaders with profound character flaws are slipping through the elite school admissions and corporate board scrutiny? Where is innovation on the part of elite institutions to incorporate innovative thinking in selecting and developing ethical leaders? Why are some boards getting it consistently wrong in their selection of leaders?