Where have the leaders gone and what do we do about it

August 20, 2011
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Business needs strong, unwavering leadership more than ever. Parents want to be their children’s friends rather than their spiritual and emotional leaders. Individuals overlook critical issues within their relationships, preferring to avoid confrontation (and ultimately resolution) by staying away from each other or being too busy to talk. Partisan politicians are more committed to identifying who is at fault than to recognizing the problems and acting to resolve them. 

Our nation cries out for a united group of leaders that will fulfill their promises by supporting the interests of “the people” rather than those that might earn them reelection. Rather than recognizing that wealth tends to create more wealth (both for an individual and for a society), equal sharing of “the burden” seems to be rhetoric, as a disproportionate helping of “cure” comes from job creators while a more than equitable share of “spoils” go to those contributing more to the problem than to the solution.

I fear that our leaders have taken leave — or at least are staying so far below the radar screen (and out of fire) that their effectiveness may be compromised. Where have the leaders gone, and how can we bring them back?

I operate under the premise that there is a difference between managers, who have often been appointed, promoted, anointed, or elected to tell others what must be done, and leaders, who express characteristics that make people want to follow them because their individual actions are a consistent reflection of their character. A manager assigns blame; a leader assumes it and seeks to minimize it so that a solution can be the focus of expressed energies. A director deflects criticism; a leader addresses it so that it does not interfere with positive action.

Far too many individuals seem to be looking for excuses as to why something happened or did not happen rather than accepting a situation as reality and intentionally moving away from it toward a resolution. Our world seems to have become a place where everyone else did things wrong — enough so, in fact, that there is no room left to accept responsibility for one’s own actions as a contributing factor in the fault.

Far too many are seeking someone or something to rescue them from financial ruin rather than taking charge of their 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.

While life-long learning is a good and desirable thing, learning from books does not provide the experience that learning from past failures does. Elevating one’s position or standing within a relationship by diminishing the worth or value of another is like rising above the clouds on wings made of wax and feathers: You may fly for a moment but you will crash into a sea of despair when you must rely on your own devices to keep you afloat. 

In regard to people, and the differences between leaders and managers, the following observations could be made:

A manager may be able to provide leadership, but he or she:

**Often gains a following through false or misleading promises that have not been internalized and consistently demonstrated through his or her actions.

**Creates a sense of “having to do work” through a fear of the consequences of not doing it rather than an emphasis of the rewards or accomplishing something.

**Could often care less what others think as long as his or her individual needs are met.

Leaders are able to provide direction and can be identified by their ability to:

**Influence by example as they gain the support of others wanting to follow their lead.

**Pull others up as they rise to the top rather than rising to the top upon the shoulders of others who bear the load.

**Understand their audience when speaking or communicating, making sure that all conversation is two-way.

When individuals are given the tools with which to work — education, knowledge and mentoring — and the environment in which to operate — honest, open, accepting and forgiving — with leadership that encourages growth, there is no limit to their possibilities. Managers often provide an environment that allows individuals to exhibit their skills to accomplish an assigned task. Leaders develop creativity and the willingness to act independently in those they lead by replacing the fear of failure with the rewards of success.

Our region and our nation need confident, competent leaders willing to take risks and to grow from the consequences of their decisions rather than casting blame or repeating the same inappropriate actions. We need fair and honest leaders willing to lead by example rather than by edict, seeking to motivate rather than intimidate. We need individuals willing to break new ground as they move forward — after anticipating the ramifications of their potential actions — rather than those who would continue to do things as they have always been done while expecting different results.

Are you a part of the solution or are you a major part of the problem? Do you lead by example or do you 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? Do your actions inspire others or encourage them to conspire against you?

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: What do you see? We all lead someone or something, be it a business, a family or simply our own existence. Do not let your mirror be clouded with the promise of something for nothing, for one cannot gain without first identifying and accepting some pain. Step out of the shadows and let your intentional actions reflect positively upon your individual path or direction so that you can positively influence someone else while fulfilling your destiny.

David J. Smith is president and CEO of The Employers’ Association in Grand Rapids.

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