Where Have All the Leaders Gone? Open Your Eyes, They’re All Around Us!

It’s become very stylish these days to write about the appalling “lack of leadership”, especially during these challenging times. This is understandable – when the going gets tough, we often point the finger upwards and blame it on “them”. You sometimes see this with sports teams that are struggling and under the pressure of losing; they often then turn on their coaches.

Lee Iacocca wrote a bestselling book a couple years ago, “Where Have All the Leaders Gone”, where he “sounds a howl of anger against the sad state of leadership in the U.S. today. Iacocca starts with a rundown of sins committed by George W. Bush and his administration, and then moves on to criticize the American auto industry… Along the way, Iacocca rails against the lack of leadership in vital national concerns such as health care, open markets and energy policy.”

The Washington Post is running a poll to select the best leader of 2008. One of the panelists, Fast Company’s Editor Alan Webber, picked “No one”. He had this to say: “Let’s face it: 2008 was a year of utter leader-less-ness.”

Last Boss’s Day, I ran a “Best Boss Contest”, in an attempt to give away two free books. I got ONE nomination. In other free book contests, I’ve received over 20 entries.

I could go on and on. Boss bashing has become a national sport and makes great blog fodder. The mainstream media often focuses on the negative, so it’s no surprise that leaders are being gang tackled by the press each day. I’m guilty too… after suffering through watching the Big 3 bailout senate hearings, I went on my own CEO bashing rant.

In reality, there ARE leaders all around us. You just have to open your eyes and look for them. I’m not talking about the rock star CEOs, or prominent politicians at the highest levels. I’m talking about those grass-roots, every day supervisors, managers, platoon leaders, precinct leaders, town supervisors, team captains, little league coaches, scout leaders, church committee leaders, and small business owners and entrepreneurs. These are the leaders that really make the world go around. They work hard, care about their people, inspire, motivate, coach, and are role models for the rest of us.

Do these people really exist? In my work, having been responsible for leadership development at three different companies, I see and hear about them every day. It’s a common practice for leaders to take “360 degree” assessments, where they collect feedback from their manager, direct reports, and peers. I’ve had access to thousands of these reports, and while I see my share of train wrecks, most of them are pretty favorable.

Here’s a completely random sampling of comments from my 360 assessment files (the names of been changed to protect the innocent):

“Bill is very motivational and inspirational. He has more passion and energy than anyone I know. He leads by example. He sets the bar for passion, success, and motivation. He does a great job at giving recognition to motivate and reinforce good behavior. He provides clear direction and goals, and helps you develop to achieve them.”

“Amy is very ethical and has a great work ethic. We’re lucky to have her as a leader. She is one of the strongest leaders I have ever met. She is a great coach and mentor. She creates a team environment in which all team members want to work together to achieve our goals.”

Patty is a great listener. She helps me identify my areas for improvement and helps me come up with strategies for success. She’s a positive leader; she encourages me by being passionate about what we do. She believes I can do anything and is supportive of the work I do. She is always available and willing to help. She sets high, yet realistic expectations.”

“Bill is a true leader who makes everyone around him elevate their game. I am blessed to get to work with him.”

“Mandy leads by example. She is in the field as much as possible and gives constructive feedback when needed. She motivates the team to reach above and beyond our goals.”

“Don is an excellent leader, he leads by example. He shows patience and has a great ability to really listen to his employees. He gets honest feedback from doing this.”

“Al is a calm and steady leader, a great presence in hard times. I have never seen a manager demonstrate such high leadership values. He is great at motivating and leading.”

“Sam’s energy and commitment to results makes anything we want to achieve doable. He articulates his vision, and our goals and strategies, and holds us accountable. He’s a superb communicator and motivator with an enthusiastic presence.”

“Jody genuinely cares about her people and makes you want to go out and win for her. Her passion is unparalleled and she transfers that passion to the people she managers. She’s willing to anything to help us get better and succeed. She’s a true leader and makes everyone feel they have something to contribute and achieve.”

“Jack’s greatest strength is his ability to make those around him feel important. He shows a genuine desire to make those around him better. He does a great job in coaching and helping those who work for him develop.”

“Jerry establishes a sense of purpose and unity within our team. He’s a fantastic leader; a go to person, and someone I trust and admire. I can only hope to emulate what he has created here and look forward to working for him for many years to come.”

These quotes aren’t about anybody famous. In fact, you’ll probably never hear about any of them (unless you work with them). But they all make a difference in the lives of their employees and are responsible for the success of their organizations.

And by the way – the average age of these respondents is 24. So much for another piece of popular conventional wisdom – that managers don’t know how to lead generation Y. There’s nothing in these comments that suggests gen Y employees are looking for anything unique; they just want to be appreciated, motivated, inspired, coached, and developed. Sounds like good old leadership to me.

I’m inspired when I read these comments and it makes me want to work harder to improve my leadership skills. How about you? While it’s easier (and more fun) to complain about the lack of leadership, what are you doing to become a better leader yourself?