“In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.” President Harry Truman
In 1990 Warren Bennis wrote the following in his classic leadership book, Why Leaders Can’t Lead: The Unconscious Conspiracy Continues (Jossey-Bass Publishers).
“In America today, it is harder than ever to lead. One of my favorite social barometers, the bumper sticker, corroborates this. There has been a resurgence lately of such exhortations as “Don’t Vote — It will Only Encourage Them.” For at least the second time, “Impeach Someone” is popular.
Though we need leaders as much as ever, we have never held them in lower regard. Circumstances conspire against them. And so, without meaning to, do the American people.”
Later, Bennis wrote:
“Leaders beware. There’s an “unconscious conspiracy” afoot, aiming to sabotage your plans and undermine your vision.
• Entrenched bureaucracy,
• Ominous social trends, and
• Mind-numbing routine
are among its members – and their proliferation is an unfortunate sign of our time.”
Stanford University’s comments on Bennis’s book hit solidly at one of the critical points Bennis was making:
“This book shows how emerging social forces – such as the sense of alienation from the powers that shape our lives and the increasing tension between individual rights and the common good – are making it more difficult for true leaders to emerge”
Bennis understood that a leader does not lead in a vacuum. Unlike the narrow-minded management thinkers of our day, Bennis did not view the leader in a sterile, antiseptic way. He saw the leader in his or her environment. He knew the dissection of a leader’s behaviors was only a small part of success. He realized there were many good men and women who failed as leaders, not because of their lack of skills but because of a conspiracy working against them. He saw how the environment in which the leader operates significantly impacted him or her.
Bennis clearly saw the beginning of significant trends that he knew would alter leadership, He wrote:
“In tone and temper, the 1980s were totally different from the 1970s. Indeed, the 1980s were less an extension of the 1970s than they were the result of both the 1960s and the 1970s. In the 1960s, we wanted to make the world better. In the 1970s, we wanted only to make ourselves better. Now, at the start of the 1990s, we seem to be uncertain about whether we can make anything better.
The business world is turbulent; its waters roiled by continuing scandals and violent stock market shifts. The political world is in upheaval, fueled by a growing fear that our leaders and institutions are failing to cope and, in fact, are frozen by the complexity of the problems we face. The very fabric of our society is being unraveled by unchecked crime and drug traffic, increasing poverty and illiteracy, and unprecedented cynicism toward possible solutions. Who’s in charge here? The answer seems to be, no one.”
Now, two and a half decades later, we see how accurate Bennis was in reading the tea leaves of the future. Leaders are in disrepute; they are not trusted and everyone thinks they could do a better job than those who are in power.
This series of articles attempts to define and describe some of those trends inhibiting leaders from leading. This series is not designed to make people mad, although it surely will do that. It is designed to make people think.
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