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The Key Missing Ingredient In Leadership Today

We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.

Winston Churchill

Most leadership writing today advises us on how to prosper within the system or perhaps even on flourishing despite of the system. What’s missing? Real leadership is about transforming the system.

Leadership is not merely about success. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King were great leaders, not because they were successful within their different worlds, or even because they were successful despite the constraints of their worlds. They were great leaders because they transformed their worlds.

Leadership implies more than success

To see what I mean about the limited vision of leadership today, let’s look at a rightly celebrated example of leadership writing today. It’s entitled “Solitude and Leadership” by William Deresiewicz, the author of A Jane Austen Education. It began life as a lecture at West Point given in October 2009. Then it became an article in The American Scholar. Now it is a chapter in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011 edited by Dave Eggers.

The piece is literate, eloquent and often moving. It praises the lonely and courageous leadership of General David Petraeus, who went against the flow, thought things out for himself and got things done “despite the system”.

“Leadership,” Deresiewicz told his aspiring leaders at West Point, “is what you are here to learn—the qualities of character and mind that will make you fit to command a platoon, and beyond that, perhaps, a company, a battalion, or, if you leave the military, a corporation, a foundation, a department of government.

Leadership is more than being excellent sheep

But leadership, says Deresiewicz, is about more than being successful.

“Does being a leader… just mean being accomplished, being successful? Does getting straight As make you a leader? I didn’t think so… what I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors. They were, as one of them put it herself, ‘excellent sheep.’ I had no doubt that they would continue to jump through hoops and ace tests and go on to Harvard Business School, or Michigan Law School, or Johns Hopkins Medical School, or Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey consulting, or whatever. And this approach would indeed take them far in life… People who make it to the top. People who can climb the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy they decide to attach themselves to.”

Thus Deresiewicz’s piece is already a considerable advance on the kind of writing that is common in leadership journals, with articles like “Six Steps to Asking Effective Questions” or “Seven New Presentation Techniques” or “Four Rules For Making Yourself Indispensable”. All these little tips and tricks are no doubt helpful in a limited way to keep running smoothly. But they don’t shed light on leadership.

Are these activities worth doing?

By contrast, Deresiewicz pushes his listeners to think for themselves and examine why they are doing what they are doing.

“…for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place.”

“What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army—a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.

The enemy is hierarchical bureaucracy

Deresiewicz is well aware of what these aspiring leaders will be up against. Leaders will be entering hierarchical bureaucracies, whether it’s the military like West Point, Harvard Business School, or Michigan Law School, or Johns Hopkins Medical School, or Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey consulting:

“You need to know that when you get your commission, you’ll be joining a bureaucracy, and however long you stay … you’ll be operating within a bureaucracy… And so you need to know how bureaucracies operate, what kind of behavior—what kind of character—they reward, and what kind they punish.”

“That’s really the great mystery about bureaucracies. Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along. Being whatever other people want you to be, so that it finally comes to seem that.. you have nothing inside you at all. Not taking stupid risks like trying to change how things are done or question why they’re done. Just keeping the routine going.

The problem is pervasive in institutions today:

“This is a national problem. We have a crisis of leadership in this country, in every institution. Not just in government. Look at what happened to American corporations in recent decades, as all the old dinosaurs like General Motors or TWA or U.S. Steel fell apart. Look at what happened to Wall Street in just the last couple of years.”

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