Where Did All The Leaders Go?

Has the political drama in Washington from the past few weeks given leadership a bad rap? Or is the brinksmanship, partisanship, and selfishness our leaders have demonstrated just indicative of a sad and chaotic future void of the authentic leaders of the past? Have all of our inspirational and authentic leaders disappeared?

Think about it. When people are asked to list inspirational leaders, who do they give as examples? King, Gandhi, Churchill, Kennedy, or Lincoln. Heck, these are the people on my list, and I wasn’t even alive when they any of them were leading. Maybe they just don’t make leaders like they used to.

A few months ago I read Peter Northouse’s Leadership: Theory and Practice, a review of the major theoretical approaches to leadership like skills, traits, transactional and transformational theories. My favorite is the theory of authentic leadership; a relatively new idea with little supporting research but growing popularity. What is authentic leadership? According to Northouse, there is no single universally recognized definition. But there is something intuitive about craving authenticity from our leaders.

Something us humans are pretty good at is spotting patterns. Sometimes, things just don’t look or feel right. You can’t put your finger on what’s wrong, but something definitely seems fishy. For example, I don’t really understand what happened in Washington a few weeks ago with the debt negotiations, but the whole situation just stunk. I watched congressmen from both sides of the political isle talking on TV and I just wasn’t buying what any of them were selling. These partisans didn’t seem genuine to me, they lacked authenticity.

Northouse summarizes the emerging definitions of authentic leadership, providing some clarity. He describes how authentic leaders have a genuine desire to serve others. They know themselves and they lead from their core values. I liked the description of Bill George’s practical approach to the subject which says authentic leaders: 1) understand their purpose; 2) have strong values about the right thing to do; 3) establish trusting relationships with others; 4) demonstrate self discipline and act on their values; and 5) are passionate about their mission and act from the heart.

Here’s the best news yet. We’re not born with an understanding of our purpose or with trusting relationships with others. Through a commitment to learning, practicing and growing, we can develop all five of these characteristics.

There are some precursors to great leadership, as Northouse summarizes in Theory. People must have a positive psychological disposition if they want to become authentic leaders. Confidence, hope, optimism and resilience are the qualities that make up a positive disposition. Can’t we learn how to become more hopeful or resilient?

The world needs authentic leaders. Politics, technology, organizations, and the global economy are all changing at a blinding pace. Leaders need to catch up. I’m committed to developing the right psychological disposition, self understanding, and personal mission to lead from a place of authenticity. Is anyone else?

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2 thoughts on “Where Did All The Leaders Go?

  1. John,

    This is an EXCELLENT post! You are spot-on in seeking to become an “authentic leader” … and, based the fact that you are striving for this, I have no doubt that this is exactly what you will become.

    One point of reference about past leaders that occurs to me … I, too, often lament a lack of contemporary leaders and look to learn lessons from leaders of the past. Before we get too depressed about this, however, it strikes me that one advantage past leaders had is that they weren’t on television 24 hours a day (or, at all!). One problem with leaders today is that we are simply too exposed to them. Any person or message that is over-exposed tends to lose its specialness and influence. Hopefully, there are some true leaders out there today … the only problem is, it might take the hindsight of history to see this more clearly in the future.

    In the meantime, perhaps the best we can do is to try to lead — authentically — whenever and however we can, every day, in small ways, for the best interests of those we come in contact with. Here’s to trying!

    All the best,

    Michael B

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