John McKenna at the Leadership Epidemic blog has posed a question and asked for responses from a number of bloggers. His main thesis is that most leadership sucks. I guess I'll have to differ with him in this case, since I find little indication of leadership in most of the firms I work in.
It will help to start by defining our terms. To me, leadership is defined by the ability to create a vision that stretches your team's or organization's ability, and demands more than exists today. A good leader helps others overcome their uncertainty and fears. A good leader identifies the best traits in each of us and attempts to capitalize on those traits. A good leader is understands the possibilities in his or her vision and works hard to achieve those for himself, his company, his country, and so forth.
Now, in that context, there are few true leaders in most businesses, since it is impossible to pursue more than a handful of "visions" or strategies in any business without complete chaos. Most senior executives in businesses are "managers" - that is, they understand the vision and attempt to implement it to the best of their understanding. They don't create the vision, and in most cases don't fully back it or understand it, but are doing their best to implement the vision. In any context, in any organization, there can be a maximum of one leader in this regard, however, in most firms there aren't any real leaders. Most CEOs are pragmatists, guided by Wall Street and expected earning and returns. Some leaders, like Jack Welch for instance, became recognized because he had a vision and pleased the street. Some leaders, like Steve Jobs, have been recognized for their vision but have had up and down experiences - most likely because they could not communicate their vision effectively to a solid management team below them. In many other firms, however, it is difficult to identify who is responsible for creating a vision and encouraging people to follow his or her vision. I'm working right now in a Fortune 500 company where no one can even tell me what the 3 to 5 year strategic plan is.
We've managed to dumb down a lot of leadership as well, by increasing focus on process excellence and Six Sigma. These tools aren't wrong, they just create such a micro-focus that eventually no one in the organization is looking beyond the next Type 1 or Type 2 issue. I like to say that we have plenty of 90 day leaders, but few 3 year leaders - if by these designations we mean their focus and scope of influence. Now that many firms have optimized their costs, they need to turn their attention to the bigger challenges of growth and differentiation, which requires leadership and risk.
Within a function or team, anyone can be a leader. I've worked for charismatic types who understood leadership beyond mere platitudes. Many of the best leaders I've worked with and for came from military backgrounds. What's established in the military is the importance of the team and individual, and officers in the military understand that they come last - the team comes first. Many of these leaders demonstrate that leadership by determining a plan and helping the rest of the team understand the plan and their place in it. These leaders seek the best from their team, build camaraderie and demonstrate leadership by taking the toughest roles and not asking anyone to do something they wouldn't do.
Leadership doesn't suck in most organizations. It is not apparent in most organizations or is stifled by the short term expectations of investors, which creates a quarterly driven mentality. The best place today to find true leaders in businesses is in smaller, private firms. Also, the military does an excellent job of producing individuals who are capable of great leadership, but the military as well is awfully sensitive to public pressure, the media and so forth, so many of the leaders are tamped down to align to political and public sensitivities.