Just where have all the worthwhile leaders gone

October 26, 2009
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Though the economy is tough, things are beginning to look up. While unemployment is still high, employees are receiving spot overtime to meet increasing demand (even though significant recalls have not yet begun). It has been said that "today is the new tomorrow." What once was may never again be.

During this time of transition, when organizations need strong, unwavering leadership more than ever, I fear that our leaders seem to have taken leave — or are at least staying so far below the radar screen that their effectiveness may be compromised. Within families, parents want to be their children's friends rather than their spiritual and emotional leaders. Within relationships, people are so concerned about "avoiding conflict" that critical issues are often overlooked or ignored.

Where have the leaders gone and how can we bring them back are two crucial questions that must be asked during these times of transition and change.

While managers can be (and often are) appointed, promoted or anointed, leadership is expressed through an individual's actions and revealed through his or her character. A manager assigns blame while a leader assumes it. A director deflects criticism while a leader addresses it. In a family, addressing a situation might result in as much "punishment" for the leader as it does for the one being led in terms of lost time or "restricted activities" (when the "crime" demands supervised time as a punishment). In relationships, honesty is, by far, the best policy, but people would prefer to write notes than to talk. They would rather "data-communicate" than discuss openly and honestly, preferring to "fire their shots across another's bow" without giving the opportunity to debate or clarify.

Far too many individuals seem to be looking for excuses as to why something happened rather than accepting the present as reality and intentionally moving toward a resolution. It seems that, if you listen carefully enough, everyone ELSE did things wrong — nothing is anyone's own fault, and "what will be will be" seems to rule the day. Other more specific examples of "lost leadership" would include:

The news reports on individuals without jobs facing a cessation of unemployment compensation (and how we need to extend programs that provide them with benefits), yet service jobs seem to go unfilled. Though all do not feel this way, many would prefer to "get something for nothing" than to work hard for not much more than unemployment would provide. Far too many are seeking someone or something else to rescue them from financial ruin (preferring to let someone else lead) rather than taking charge of their own situation and finding a long-term solution.

The government tries to "bring up" those having less by "taking from" those that have more — but in so doing, the motivation, desire and ability of those able to make a difference is reduced. 

Educated, compliance-oriented professionals who have not yet experienced "practical" reality nor demonstrated an ability to lead are stepping in for individuals having proven knowledge and practical experience as they exit the work force. While life-long learning is a good and desirable thing, learning from books does not provide the experience that learning from one's past failures does.

In an "I'm OK, I'm not so sure about you" society, paranoid individuals view any comment or suggestion as being criticism rather than support. They tend to "protect turf" by building walls and silos to keep others out rather than openly sharing and encouraging for the good of the cause or the growth of another.

Individuals must be given the tools (education/knowledge/mentoring) with which to work and the environment (honest, open, accepting and forgiving) in which to operate if they are expected become leaders. A manager can lead but often gains a following through fear and intimidation, creating a sense of "having to" follow for fear of the consequences. A leader influences by example, gaining the support of others wanting to follow him or her into battle.  Leaders prefer to pull others along — managers tend to push others ahead. A great leader understands his or her "audience," be it a corporate group, a family or a significant other, and tempers his or her words, actions and responses against what the listening party seeks. A manager frequently "could care less" what others think or feel as long as his or her individual needs are met.

Look at yourself and your style. Are you a part of the solution or are you a major part of the problem? Do you inspire others to positive action or do your actions encourage them to conspire against you? Do you lead by example or manage through edict? Do you anticipate "what might happen" and prepare for it or react to what has happened by blaming others and accepting the consequences? In a world being run more and more by feelings rather than facts, by thoughts rather than knowledge and by consensus rather than individual courage, perhaps it's time we all raised our leadership quotient a bit (and expected the same from our leaders!).

During these tough times, West Michigan needs confident, competent leaders willing to take risks and grow from their consequences. In business, fair and ethical leaders are a pre-requisite to sustainable growth. In our personal relationships, we need to seek honesty and integrity as we work together with those close to us. In our families, we need to lead by example. A society that expects others to "do as I say rather than as I do" is one that may "get by" but will rarely thrive.

Where have the leaders gone? Look in the mirror — we all lead someone or something, be it a business, a family or simply our own existence. Don't let your mirror be clouded with the promise of something for nothing. Step out of the shadows and let your intentional actions reflect positively upon someone else as you fulfill your own destiny.

David J. Smith is president and CEO of The Employers' Association, a not-for-profit provider of human resource solutions since 1939.

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