Guest Post by Matthew Jones
One does not have to look too far to see what many have dubbed a “crisis in leadership.”
Bad guidance and poor judgment appear to be dominating our public space, putting in jeopardy our hopes for progress. Why? Because without strong leadership, individual goals reign supreme—no one knows where to look, so we put on our blinders and do what’s best for us.
So whether it’s environmental protection, healthcare, food supply or business, recent leadership has been unable to communicate unifying messages, fostering individual pursuit and harming solidarity. This trend has led some to say leadership is failing.
Is Modern Leadership Missing the Point?
But as the world globalizes, so do our problems, making collaboration and cooperation more important than ever. However, what we have seen, particularly in the last few years, is the opposite. People everywhere are closing themselves off, jeopardizing efforts to build a sustainable human existence that ensures a good life for all.
To understand why leadership is in such a crisis we need to revisit one of the key components to quality leadership, vision.
What is vision?
All good leaders, from quarterbacks to revolutionaries, are defined by their vision. Vision is a leader’s image of the future around which they inspire people into action.
The most successful leaders use this vision to reach people and make this dream a reality. Think of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Kenya’s Wangari Maathai. These individuals imagined a world that at the time did not exist. However, by believing in this vision and by rallying people around it, they were able to get people to work together and take advantage of the awesome power of collaboration.
What’s our vision?
If we look to today’s leaders — whether in business, government or the community — it’s hard to answer this question. We’re so divided, and those genuinely interested in addressing the problems of today often struggle to find leaders to follow.
So what is our vision for the future? What unites us?
To me, when I look around, the only semblance of a vision I find is growth and progress. While these pursuits form part of being human, our narrow-minded focus on growing to grow and progressing to progress does little to unite us and to foster collaboration.
For example, since the 2008 financial crisis rocked the world, there has been a lot of emphasis on jumpstarting economies and stimulating growth. Some countries have been able to do this, but for many, this progress has not been felt on an individual level.
This points us to the distinction between cumulative and comprehensive results made by Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen in his book “Development as Freedom”. Focusing on the end game, on growth or on progress ignores how the experience of getting to these ends is felt by those on the ground.
But this isn’t just an issue with leaders; it filters down to the individual, for each one of us is our own leader. We give far too much attention to working towards short-term objectives. If we earn more money, buy a new home or achieve any other material gain, our success should be measured on how we achieved that growth, not by the mere fact we achieved it.
We should be asking: Who was affected by these changes and how? How did this progress contribute to our overall goals?
When we keep our vision so focused on short-term and tangible goals, we lose sight of the bigger picture. We applaud achievements we should perhaps question and ignore those we should be celebrating.
This is why modern leadership might be missing the point. What are the bigger picture goals? Sure, growth is important, but without a broader, more ambitious vision, we pursue this objective with blinders on, disregarding any harm we might be doing or missteps we might be taking.
Is there another way?
There’s an adage, “You don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.” While this is sound advice, a good leader should throw these words out the window. This is not to say we should ignore history, but rather stop letting it get in our way. Our dogmatic focus on growth and progress represents a clear intention simply to repeat or repurpose what we’ve already done.
This is not to say there are no new ideas. Quite the contrary, innovation is all around us, but our unclear vision prevents their breakthrough and causes confusion at the hour of determining which ideas are good and which are bad. As it stands now, our narrow focus on growth and progress justifies all actions that achieve this end, seemingly no matter the consequences.
This limits us. What we need instead is a broader, more complete vision that would make it easier for leaders to weed out unproductive initiatives faster and do more to promote activities promising to bring about meaningful change.
Can this happen?
Of course! The sign of a good leader is believing anything can happen. So while this objection with unlimited growth and progress might seem crazy, we should not be so quick to reject what might seem like radical ideas.
Galileo was imprisoned for his beliefs, but he refused to change them, and now we look back and lament his oppression. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed because his non-violent vision challenged some of society’s most ingrained perceptions.
But where would we be today without these individuals? What would the world look like if we still thought the Earth was the center of the solar system? What would have happened if the fight for civil rights followed a “by any means necessary” vision instead of non-violence?
These individuals were inspired not by what was easy, but what was right. This moral compass comes from vision, something the world needs now more than ever.
Matt is a Master’s student in International Development at the Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals. He is the co-founder of a social enterprise Postcards 4 People and has experience in the field of communications and publishing. As a millennial, he is rather concerned with the world and its future and is looking for ways to help spread the vision of those truly working for a better world. He is the author of The Human Revolution, which is a space dedicated to finding and understanding the human spirit amidst all the chaos of the modern world.
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Is Modern Leadership Missing the Point?
I couldn’t agree more. The lack of commonality among corporate leaders hurts us, and competition still remains supreme. What’s interesting about the study you bring up, though, is that if 42 percent of consumers base their perception of a company on its ethics and values, what do the other 58 percent use to value a company? There still seems to be a disconnect between business and “society,” as if they were pursuing separate goals. So while it’s important CEOs come together to drive more common causes, it is also important to promote the role of the consumer. If that number were 80 percent instead of 42, we’d be having a whole different conversation since being ethical would far and away be more profitable for these companies. Right now, that isn’t necessarily the case, which is why we have this disconnected vision where each party is working for their own. There’s a conversation to be had across all sectors of society as to the role of business in relation to well-being and and about how to harness this sector to bring about meaningful and impactful change.
Corporate activity in the leadership domain has come to exist more and more in silos and operate autonomously from other corporations. Each to his or her own and “devil take the hindmost.” What is missing are the following: common vision, common purpose, common goals. Those are what unite us whether in an organization, a community or a country. One exception is among those socially responsible companies and you can find a list of the top 6, 10 or 15 companies who are known for taking that position. A recent study found that 42% of consumers base their perception of a company based on the company’s ethics and values. The sample size was 47,000 consumers across various populations. The answer, I believe, lies in more and better communication between and among CEO’s about how to pull together for the betterment of our society.