Last time, I wrote that my forthcoming book will be, at least indirectly, a reflection on an age-old question: What exactly constitutes effective leadership? For, if I have come to coach leaders in the specific way I do, it is in part because I feel that our society has gone astray in its views of what true leadership is and how leaders should communicate.
In that light, I begin the book with a somewhat clichéd observation and my opinion about it: It seems wherever I have gone in recent years, I have listened to people saying that we are experiencing a “leadership crisis”. Many of the individuals who engage me in conversation seem to be disappointed—questioning the integrity and motivation of their country’s public officials and corporate leaders.
How can we explain this profound leadership crisis?
The closer I look, the more I find that we live in an age of great cynicism about leadership, and of deep disillusionment with our leaders. In 2008, a Harvard University study of confidence in leaders found that 80 percent of those polled thought that the United States was suffering from a leadership crisis. In general, respondents showed little confidence in the integrity and ethics of leaders in a wide variety of sectors, including business, government and religion. People gave leaders low ratings for their knowledge, skill, and capacity to inspire loyalty or enthusiasm in their followers. (You can read some of the detail of the study here)
As I mentioned above, this is not just a US phenomenon. Everywhere I travel throughout Europe and Latin America, my conversations seem to lead to the question: Why do we have so little trust in our leaders? And how have we lost our way on the road to understanding the fundamentals of leadership? Given the prominence of leadership topics in our culture and in our institutions of learning today, or the vast number of hours our organizations spend on leadership training, how is it possible that we seem to be endlessly mired in leadership crisis?
One possible answer to these questions is that we often focus on the wrong things when we consider leadership.
In both business and politics, many leaders in recent times have put their personal agendas first, seeking short-term financial gain or the adulation of the media more than long-term benefits for their groups or for society at large. Rather than serve those they lead, politicians and business leaders have sought to use their power and influence to manipulate followers while enhancing their own fortunes and reputations.
Followers, as well, may be to blame, for having come to respect the wrong things in their leaders. In an age of short-term thinking and quick judgments, we often base our admiration on an individual’s magnetism and showmanship, rather than looking for attributes that take longer to judge, such as strength of character or personal integrity. We have focused our attention too much on style and appearance, on charisma and star power, rather than on issues of true substance, such as character, purpose and authenticity.
In addition, we live today in a culture of speed, impatience and quick fixes. I often come across people who seem somewhat willing to take on roles of leadership in their worlds, but without having to work hard at it, without having to look deeply within themselves to understand their core principles or true purpose. They would like to imitate the styles and behaviors of established and proven leaders, rather than do the profound introspection that all true people of influence must do. More and more in recent years, we have looked for external solutions—models, road maps, techniques, or styles to imitate—when the only true path to leadership is an internal one.
Thus, my purpose in writing a new book, one about leading with one’s personal stories of identity, is to go far beyond our society’s stereotypes concerning a leader’s style, charisma, or oratory techniques. My coaching of leaders has always been about learning to communicate in ways that demonstrate character and authenticity. To my readers, as it is for my coaching clients, I say that this book is about helping you discover and express your true nature and your purpose. It is about understanding the things that truly matter to you, about learning to express yourself from the heart and in your natural voice, and about using that voice to make a difference in your world.