Wednesday, January 7, 2009

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?


Anonymous said...

Dan, I love highlighting that there are unheralded leaders all around us. Many effective leaders ply their craft in relative obscurity somewhere inside organizations. Of course, if they had an effective boss, they wouldn't be laboring in obscurity. Ooops. You are right, it is easy to boss bash!

Thanks for the positive post.


Eclecticity said...

Excellent post documented from the real world. Thanks Dan.

Dan McCarthy said...

Art, E:
Glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for letting me know.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Dan - thanks for a great post.

You have articulately identified a condition in our consideration of leadership that has to change. We simply have to stop connecting leadership with lofty positions and recognize that it is a function which can and should exist at all levels within our society.

The real question in my mind is how we change our systems and our attitudes to insure that "grassroots' leadership is reinforced and rewarded.

Thanks for YOUR leadership in focusing on this important issue.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Dan - thanks for a great post.

I could not agree more with your well-articulated description of where we need to go in our tretment of leadership development. We simply cannot afford to continue to view leadership as something that occurs at the top of the pyramid, and we need to shift our thinking and our efforts toward leadership as a skill that all employees can develop and use.

I'm always tickled by the posters in the Successory store. The leadership ones tend to phrases like "Buzzards nest alone" or something that indicates that leadership is a lonely (and therefore restricted) place and the teamwork posters where the contributions of all are essential. To me, there is a conflicting message being sent . . . but this stuff sells:).

Thanks for your effort and leadership in this respect.


Anonymous said...

1. We see no great leaders on the top. Organizations (aka their C-level execs) don't show much leadership these days.

2. There are a lot of people down there who are considered as true leaders.

My wild guess: leaders from the latter group won't make their way to the top. Big organizations look more for skilled administrators than true leaders.

Leadership is more appreciated by leaded people than by supervisors of a leader. That how it works in majority of cases.

Anonymous said...

"they all make a difference in the lives of their employees and are responsible for the success of their organizations."

In other words - striving to enrich the lives of those we work with and taking responsibility for the world around us.

Thank you, Dan. This kind of leadership is available to each of us at any moment we choose.

And people are choosing it all around you, me, us.

Making this leadership choice probably won't make headlines. There is a big difference between fame and greatness. Fame is about polls in the Washington post.
Greatness is what you've written about.


Dan McCarthy said...

John -
Thanks for stopping by, and for your thoughts and kind words.

John E> -
"Buzzards nest alone"? First time I've heard that one!
Thanks very much.

Pawel -
Thanks for your comments.
While it may be true that results are what get you noticed and promoted, I don't believe you can achieve sustainable great results without great leadership.
Those that make it to the top by fear and intimidation will eventually fail; it’s just a matter of when.

Eric -
Thanks for helping to clarify even more what I was trying to say!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that post, Dan. It's good to remember that there's great leadership happening all over. I've done supervision skills training with people heading into their first job as a boss. Most of those people have moved done a fine job. Some of them have been promoted. Some, since I've been doing this a long time, have risen to the top of the organization.

It's also worth noting that there are a lot of CEOs and other c-suite execs doing a good job. This seems to be a time when the others get all the press. As my dad used to say, "Everyone is put here by God for a purpose. Some are to serve as horrible examples."

Dan McCarthy said...

Wally -
Thanks for the laugh!

Mary Jo Asmus, President, Aspire Collaborative Services LLC said...

Hello Dan,

I agree with Wally, and wrote a recent post about how the press focuses on the bad examples. I guess this kind of focus sells (advertisements, news, whatever).

Luckily, my opinion is skewed because I've decided to ONLY focus on the good leaders (even those who make honest mistakes), and like you, I see good leaders everywhere.

Truly evil and corrupt leaders aside, I sometimes think we expect too much of our leaders. We expect perfection, when indeed, we are human, after all. We all make honest mistakes. And we are all at the whim of a complex world that can be very quick to point the finger when a leader is doing great work, is of strong character, and makes an honest mistake.

Thanks for starting the conversation about the good ones.

CherryPie said...

Very interesting quotes.

Dan McCarthy said...

Mary Jo -

I agree, the expectations are often unrealistic. I makes me wonder - do we really have a talent shortage, or are the job descriptions unrealistic?

Mary Jo Asmus, President, Aspire Collaborative Services LLC said...


Since you asked, you now get an opinion! I agree with Geoff Colvin that "talent is over rated". There is not a leadership talent shortage - rather, there is a leadership develpment shortage. Subtle but strong distinction here. Organizations expect individuals to step right into all the complexities and issues of leadership NOW. This is a recipe for failure. Many talented individuals can become great leaders when provided with the tools to do so.

I would say that EXPECTATIONS are unrealistic. And maybe "job descriptions" too.

Anonymous said...

Great post Dan!

It is far too easy to get caught up in the media frenzy over the situational lack of leadership in our society and throw all of our leaders (from all levels) under the bus. You are absolutely right, there are great leaders out there - we just have to open our eyes to see them!

I've featured your post in my weekly Rainmaker 'Fab Five' blog picks of the week (found here: so that my readers may benefit from your thoughts.

Be well!

Dan McCarthy said...

Chris -
Thanks, I'm honored. I like the other 4 picks.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.

Wally Bock

Dan McCarthy said...

Wally -
Thanks, I'm honored! I always enjoy your fbbbpotw.

Anonymous said...

Dan, excellent post. It's refreshing to read about people who are making a difference, people who embody the true meaning of leadership. Leaders exist at every level, and many of them have no one reporting to them. -Michael

Dan McCarthy said...

thanks, Michael!