It is time we faced facts. In spite of the many millions of dollars spent by companies and governments around the world each year, the strategies we are using to develop leaders and embed leadership have failed us. Sometimes they give us the illusion of progress. But in reality they don't work. How could they?
If we were making real progress we would instantly be able to identify extraordinary leaders in most of our corporations. They would stand out for their distinctiveness, their passion and their presence. Instead we get grey faces in grey suits thinking grey thoughts; clones armed with lookalike MBAs from one of the many lookalike business schools.
Yet we continue to throw big bucks this way. Who are we kidding? Real leaders, authentic leaders, seem to be a rare if not virtually extinct species. Why is this? Why do so few people in public life inspire us by their vision of how things might be? Is leadership such a rare talent that it is out of reach for most of us? Or are we simply looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Part of the problem, I am convinced, lies in our stories of leadership. Seduced by nostalgia for the past they entangle us in past glories. Stemming from the games boys played at school (then choose to maintain in business) these myths speak almost exclusively of heroic deeds by an exclusively male fraternity.
You won't find many women's tales in this stereotypical male domain unless they are Joan-D'Arc or Boadicea types, prepared to don the mantle of masculinity to seek advancement. Nor do more spiritual aspects of our humanity get much of a look in. This is a real man's world where actions always speak louder than words and where expressing one's feelings and showing compassion are best avoided.
And so we are taught from an early age that leaders possess the kinds of courage, wealth, power and status that mere mortals only dream about. This then generates the view that we are all merely players in a story being directed by the rich and powerful. What arid, dangerous nonsense!
Another misguided myth concerns the relationship between leaders and managers. As management science sought legitimacy during the latter half of the 20th century, an adolescent consulting industry extended its influence and earnings potential by declaring leadership a management competency. This, of course, is absurd. The inherent difference between managers (who channel any resources at hand to achieve measurable results as seamlessly as possible) and leaders (who harness their entire being in the pursuit of disruptive dreams) will forever remain in creative tension. Confusing the two, however, degrades management while thwarting genuine leadership.
A third possibility concerning the contemporary confusion over leadership is that the nature of leadership itself is changing. Perhaps the charismatic style of leadership we have come to expect, and for which we still yearn, is no longer sufficient for our needs. In that case, perhaps leadership is self-organizing into something less evident (but more pervasive) than previously? It doesn'??t mean that leadership has disappeared. Rather, it has adopted a new guise. After all, the world is always changing with old certainties continually being swept away.
Through the ages, as we often joke, death and taxes were the only certainties. Today, however, even this must be in doubt. Astonishing breakthroughs in knowledge are undermining almost everything we once held true. New technologies are disrupting long-established patterns of human activity, banishing the familiar and eroding certainty in our minds. Traditional value systems are rapidly mutating. Even our most venerable institutions are threatened as, through the rapid fusion of ideas, technologies, markets, institutions and cultures, entire belief systems collide and ricochet - indifferent to established boundaries.
At the same time, digital gadgets and social networking websites plug us in to the clamour of the global village. What it means to be human (its ideals, anguish, joys and horrors) is thrust in our faces. Twenty four hours a day. Seven days a week. This intrusion of the mass media into our daily lives ensures there can be no escape. Alas we are trapped in prisons of our own invention.
The pressures on business leaders and politicians, too, appear overwhelming. Technology is continuously changing what we do, how we do it - and even how long we can keep on doing it before we need to do something else. Governments everywhere react nervously to the slightest shift in geopolitical conditions. Clinging to the coat-tails of American or Chinese militancy (depending upon one's persuasion) their authority evaporates with the decline in national sovereignty.
Companies resort to obsolete business models (because that is all they know) apparently unconcerned by the risks they face in remaining the same. Spin-doctors talk up growth while glossing over the look-alike plans they know will stifle innovation and strip value out of the enterprise.
The landscape has become littered with mindless, short-term, survival tactics. And, just to add a further frisson of uncertainty, a rising tide of corporate accounting scandals is shaking world markets as terrorists fly planes into buildings, organized religion staggers from one crisis to another, activists use the Internet to plot the end of capitalism or snuff out the Olympic flame even as global warming threatens our very existence! No wonder the business world is in such a state of bewilderment.
As these dynamics acquire a seemingly unstoppable intensity they give rise to an increasingly unstable environment in which the rules (and much of the knowledge) of the past 400 years are irrelevant. How can we possibly know what matters any more? What should a leader do in times such as these? So ambiguous is today's environment it seems almost impossible to achieve anything much. And yet almost anything is now possible.
Change is not just about having a singular vision, instituting controls for its realization and persuading others of its virtue. That is how we got ourselves into this mess in the first place. On the contrary, change requires that we first transform ourselves, embracing emergence and accepting that the world is a far richer and more complex place than any of us can possibly comprehend. Over the coming decades we will need to redesign the entire material basis of our civilizatiion. In that context the real challenge of leadership demands that we let go of our old self-serving scripts and create new stories and new realities that allow our authentic selves to emerge whole once again.
From tribes and cults through empires to today's monstrous bureaucracies and multinational corporations the story that has dominated Western society for well over two centuries has been one of servitude and efficiency. It fuelled an age of prosperity where self-interest was tied to the notion of material gain. This story has led to impoverished views of the self and an ethos of dependency within society. It is no longer adequate to maintain a sense of well-being.
Furthermore, because it fails to remind us of our dependence on the environment (often seen merely as a means of production) we have damaged the earth's resources and lost our sense of connection to the planet that sustains us.
The new story, emerging, felt, but not yet clearly understood, is about integration and viability. At some point, we have to know, accept, and express who we really are, not be content with being what others want us to be. When we can tap into our passions, engage authentically with the world, and discover a more sustaining and meaningful story, we will change ourselves. And when we change ourselves, we change the world.
That is the rationale and the world of five literacies leaders - a world where leadership is a state of being (a philosophy rather than some alchemical process intended to transform management clones into inspirational leaders) and where effectiveness means acquiring the ability to deal with novelty while embracing the extraordinary.
This kind of leadership is still relatively rare. But the profound thinking underpinning it can be found in The Five Literacies of Global Leadership. It is also apparent in the work of Mieza Consulting - a small boutique professional services firm located in Melbourne Australia staffed by people who actually understand the true nature of leadership today. Mieza's approach to the age-old problem of how to develop leaders is unique, springing from the subtle, yet significant, difference between leaders and leadership.
You might also find a few courses around that jettison convention in favour of a very different take on leadership. But I doubt you will find them in the business schools. Take oases for example. Another Australian-based initiative, this pioneering Masters degree in integrative and transformational studies could well revolutionize the academic landscape - if academics ever bothered to look outside their ivory towers to see what else is going on that is!
oases offers an accredited, graduate, part-time course undertaken totally outside of a formal university structure. Expansive in scope (in contrast to the stiflingly narrow efforts of most programs in leadership) oases is a program high on originality and self-awareness that treats leading as a living art. Based upon purposeful dialogue and collaborative inquiry, this highly creative initiative deals with whole people in their whole world.
Which is, of course, what authentic leadership is all about. The stark realities of the present human condition require those of us who aspire to leadership to transcend ego in order to become a force for good in this world. The people at Mieza and oases actually get it. Few others do as yet.
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