Commentary / Leading by example

Two-thirds of Americans believe we have a leadership crisis

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There's trouble in the mega industry created to sate our unending desire for effective leaders we can believe in.

Despite the proliferation of books on how to be a leader, despite hours of talk shows where the authors of these best-selling tomes propagate their secrets, and despite week-long seminars where the fundamentals of leadership are methodically diagnosed, 69 percent of Americans believe we have a leadership crisis.

This comes from the Kennedy School's Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University, which is entrusted with maintaining the National Leadership Index. The center reports that only two groups -- the military and the medical profession -- received above-average leadership scores last year. Congress supplanted Wall Street as the profession whose leaders Americans have the least confidence in. Not far behind Wall Street is the media, the only one of 13 sectors where confidence levels declined last year.

Barbara Kellerman, a lecturer for the center, maintains that more time should be spent studying followers. She says leaders are weaker than they used to be and followers are stronger. You can look it up in her recent book, "The End of Leadership."

So what's wrong with our leaders? Do we expect too much of them? Do they have less material to work with than the legendary leaders of yore? Has their stature been compromised by the 24-hour news cycle, which ceaselessly reports their shortcomings to further the media's blind pursuit of higher ratings and more discrete page views?

Or is it because leaders fail to embody the inspiring quotes the leadership industry everlastingly spouts as part of its evangelical mission?

Napoleon Bonaparte, who was enough of a leader to get a few thousand Frenchmen to follow him on an extended vacation to Russia, said, "A leader is a dealer in hope." Not knowing what lay ahead, hope inspired their march. Perhaps today's followers are too well-informed to fall for the hope routine.

Or perhaps followers are too embittered because so many leaders fail Abraham Lincoln's leadership litmus test: "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."

Maybe the failures of leaders have caused followers to heed Pittsburgh steel magnate Andrew Carnegie's advice: "The older I get, the less I listen to what people say and the more I look at what they do." The steel baron was only paraphrasing St. Francis of Assisi, who said, "It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching."

Can the leadership crisis be traced to the fact that even though today's leaders employ a gaggle of public relations spinmeisters to carefully craft their message, they never say anything close to the contents of those widely trafficked leadership quotes? Or that, even if they mouth the words, they lack the credibility to make people believe them?

When was the last time you heard your employer's Alpha Male or Alpha Female say something similar to what former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had to say on the topic: "You do not lead by hitting people over the head -- that's assault, not leadership."

The only thing Eisenhower had to defend was liberty. Today's leaders are charged with more daunting tasks: justifying their oversized paychecks; mudslinging in order to beat off challengers at the polls; and butchering the English language in order to concoct 140-character leadership quotes to feed the minions of the Twitterverse.

Who among you work for someone who fits John Quincy Adams' idea of a leader: "If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader."

Who among you reports to someone who believes in the kinder and gentler Gen. George H. Patton? Not Old Blood and Guts who said, "War is simple, direct and ruthless," but the fearless leader who said: "Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity."

When was the last time you arrived at the office, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and found someone who could do what Ralph Waldo Emerson said leaders do: "Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be." Who among your superiors is capable of what John D. Rockefeller said leaders do: "Good leadership consists of showing average people how to do the work of superior people."

Perhaps those who aspire to better leadership by plunking down money for books, lectures and seminars on the subject should instead spend a year or two following the simple advice of Albert Schweitzer: "Example is not the main thing in influencing others; it is the only thing."

And if the mutterings of a Nobel Prize-winning medical missionary fail to inspire them, perhaps they'll accept the advice of Thomas J. Watson Sr. He was IBM's CEO from 1914 until 1956 and, according to a biography posted on IBM's website, was among the first business leaders "to offer widespread benefits to employees, including medical expenses, insurance and a pension plan."

Watson's advise was elementary: "Nothing so conclusively proves a man's ability to lead others as what he does from day to day to lead himself."


-- Len Boselovic: or 412-263-1941 First Published May 3, 2013 4:00 AM


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