So Many Leadership Books, so Few Leaders

We live in ironic times. Type in “leadership” at, and you get astonishing 300,000+ matches. For as long as I can remember, leadership books have been a robust category on the business book shelf. I believe many managers and aspiring managers go into bookstores, browse the business category, and come out with a leadership book or two. Even if these folks were looking for something else, they were drawn to the leadership shelf and couldn’t resist one that promised to transform them into something larger than themselves.

After all, who doesn’t want to be a leader? We all think we possess some leadership abilities, even the shyest among us. If that is true, then I have one question:

Where on earth are all the leaders?

We not only live in ironic times, we live in dangerous times. And I am not talking about wars or the kind of terrorism we saw in Mumbai late last month.  Those are indeed dangerous and tragic events, so please don’t get me wrong.  I am talking about a wrecked economy that is taking an ever greater toll with each passing day. In today’s wired, 24-hour-news cycle, You Tube society, things happen in days that used to take weeks or longer. The stock market fluctuates 700-900 points in a single day, moving more than three percent most days.  Job losses are routineley announced in the many thousands by our greatest companies on the same day.

Then there was the near-death of the financial industry, where century-old financial institutions disappeared like ghosts in the night (e.g. Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns). We have an automobile industry on the verge of extinction. Unemployment is up by some fifty percent in the last two years alone (to 6.7 percent). We just lost more jobs in a single month since 1974—533,000 in November–and the economy is in its worst shape since the Great Depression. Yet, with all that, who is stepping up and demonstrating an ounce of leadership? Besides symbolic and important gestures by President Elect Obama, we see little leadership on display. (However, we really cannot count the incoming president, since he has no real power to do anything other than to tell us what he will do starting in about 40 days. And like he says, there is only one president at at time, so he obviously cannot make law or policy).  

Congress, after doing the only thing it could do by green lighting a $700+ billion package for Wall Street, came dangerously close to allowing the three automakers go out of business. Sure, the car-makers are responsible for most of their own woes, but this is no time to cut off our noses to spite our faces. Allowing another two million jobs to go by the wayside in the midst of this already severely impaired economy would have been a suicidal move. The fact that they made the three CEOs come back to Washington to beg for $25 billion was ridiculous. Congress was more interested in pointing fingers than doing the right thing, violating a key Drucker imperative: “it doesn’t matter who is right, but what is right.”  Those more interested in the former rather than the latter do not deserve to be in positions of influence, insisted Drucker. 

With a lame duck president seemingly unwilling to do anything but to pack his bags, with no CEO or congressional leadership, we are facing the greatest leadership vacuum of my lifetime (which started during the JFK administration—my lifetime—not the leadership vacuum). Warren Buffett tried to add a little confidence by making investments in Goldman Sachs and GE, but those deals were more symbolic than anything else, since Buffett got sweetheart deals unavailable to the rest of us both times. The failure of any authentic leadership in these troubled times points to a larger, systemic problem. While there are many solid qualified leaders out there, their failure to communicate confidence or help build confidence in any way in these times is unforgivable.



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