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Why Don't We Get The Leaders We Need?

Max Dunn Posted by Max Dunn, Digital-Editorial Intern, Berrett-Koehler Publishers.


Many people have the sense that our political leaders aren’t leading us anywhere.

Many people have the sense that our political leaders aren’t leading us anywhere. They feel that while, perhaps, they are solving short-term problems, there’s no sense of destination – that the same old issues keep recurring. Like boom and bust. Or getting into wars we don’t agree with. Or pre-election promises that weren’t thought through or even genuine.

Perhaps this is why – or at least partly why – voter turnout in the UK is on the decline. I heard on the radio that 60% of 18-30-year-olds didn’t vote at the last election. Although it’s showing as disinterest, that’s a more powerful statement of discontent than rioting in the streets (which we also had back in August).

The Leaders We Need

So what kind of leaders do we need if people are to snap out of their apathy? Surely we need:

  • Leaders who are prepared to question the previously unquestionable.
  • Leaders who can help us see through to root causes.
  • Leaders who can work on problems with others to imagine new solutions that old prejudices and mindsets have been masking until now.
  • Leaders who aren’t controlled by either their own selfish desires or a power elite.
  • Leaders who will tell the truth, even though we may not like to hear it; who are prepared to be rejected by the electorate; who will say what they really think and feel in the service of those they lead.
  • Leaders who will accept that if those they lead don’t want what they’re offering, it’s time to step down.
  • Leaders who are not trapped in – and moulded by – the current system that causes those who rise to the top to be in debt to those who have allowed them to become leader.
  • Leaders who can connect with those they lead in a way that’s clear, persuasive, inspires trust and enthusiastic consensus – and, of course, leads to action.

So why don’t we get the leaders we need?

Political Party Machinery

It’s partly because we allow an unhelpful system to control who is acceptable as a leader. For is it not clear that for someone to rise to leader of a political party, they must be acceptable to the party’s leading lights and, above all, its elite backers?

Thus, any budding leader knows he must conform to certain norms and mindsets if he’s to gain the leadership position he wants.

Selfish Ambition

And this of course takes us to another problem.

For although there will be exceptions, it’s mainly those with intense personal ambition who rise to the top in the current system. They are the ones most likely to submit themselves to the trials of their party’s political machinery, give up their privacy and mould their personalities to fit in.

We Are The Problem Too

But selfishly ambitious individuals and the political party system aren’t the only problems. We, the people, are the problem too. You see, would we truly recognise a candidate who has the qualities we need?

Would we, for example, accept a candidate who’d tell us that greedy bankers are not the only unhelpful aspect of the financial system – that we are part of the problem too? In other words, that many of us share the same “something for nothing” mentality.

For do we not expect our pension funds to go on growing without effort on our part? And how many of us allowed our building societies to become banks in the hope of getting free shares and making a quick buck – without providing useful products or services to society in return? Or invested in property hoping to make easy money.

So would we recognise that our attitudes and behaviour will also have to change if we’re to have a better world? Or would we rather go on looking for scapegoats – be they bankers or anyone else – and carry on as we are?

The Heart of the Problem

The point is this: would a leader offering the new ideas we need and with the wish only to serve the vast majority want to lead people that aren’t ready to take responsibility for the problems they cause as individuals?

I think the answer is no.

What Has To Change?

So what has to change? Well, take the example of South Africa and Nelson Mandela. Some in South Africa claim that it was only because they had Nelson Mandela that they avoided a revolution.

Now it’s surely true that Nelson Mandela wouldn’t have been able to lead so wisely and command widespread trust in such demanding circumstances if he hadn’t cast off any bitterness towards those who’d jailed him and instead seen everyone as brothers.

But consider this: how would Nelson Mandela have become a remarkable leader of that country if most citizens, white and black, hadn’t recognised his qualities and allowed him to lead them? It would have been impossible.

Thus, for a remarkable leader to make a difference he first has to work on himself – he has to let go of his old prejudices and limiting mindsets. Only then will he see the way to a fundamentally new future. Only then will he be able to offer transformational leadership.

But the led must also be ready to recognise and work with the leader. For it is the readiness of the led that will decide who can become the leader and what they can achieve.

The Bottom Line?

Leaders must work on their own growth to the benefit of those they serve. This is the process of self-mastery I describe in The Three Levels of Leadership .

But the led also have to realise their responsibility, start to educate themselves on the problems that concern them most and consider their own behaviour if society-wide improvements are to happen.

The truth is, we get the leaders we deserve. And we’ll only get the leaders we need when we are ready.