Even as we optimistically try to change the world by advancing the cause of good leadership, the cynical voice – occasionally my own – will sometimes win the day.
Human beings are exasperating creatures. We say what we want and then have a devil of a time taking even the most obvious actions to meet our needs. We are obdurate without self-awareness. We believe in things we are told to believe without questioning them. We obsess about minutiae and logistics while astonishingly unaware of the human drama around us. We are too often selfish, myopic, infuriating, and downright corrupt.
With all these faults, how have we created great symphonies, altarpieces, sleek automobiles, Scotch, sunglasses, and Shakespeare? How have we overcome our banality and our petty conflicts and managed to build airplanes, dance the tango, swim the English Channel, and invent and solve the Rubik’s cube?
I wonder if leadership is at least partly to answer. Few of us have achieved anything without the presence of good leadership in our lives. Few of us would be capable of overcoming the influence of discordant and coercive leadership without falling into an abyss of tribalism, violence, or despair.
So I don’t doubt for a minute that good leadership is essential to the quality of our lives and the survival of our planet. And I know that it’s either in short supply or buried under our collective cynicism in a way that prevents it from being heard. Are there good leaders among us, but their telling of the truth and their demands on our character repels us, their weak and inattentive potential followers?
So even as I have soldiered on with the best of intentions to help people lead more effectively, there are times when that cynical voice speaks loudly – not with a shout but with an annoying certainty – saying it’s just not worth it, that human beings are wired in ways that can’t be changed. That power and money are too much for even good people to put in proper perspective as they go about their work and lives.
Teaching leadership is the act of an optimist, and over $150 Billion is spent on Leadership Development in the U.S. alone each year, so at least we know that something is missing, and many business organizations are busily trying to buy whatever it is. But buy what? I think these businesses believe when they’re buying leadership development services that they’re buying the equivalent of bug spray or whitening toothpaste.
When I stepped out of my corporate roles 20 years ago and started Path Forward, I chose to make less money than if I had stayed in the corner office. But make no mistake about it – there is a great deal of money to be made in the leadership development business. So we see a lot of money being committed, we see some smart and earnest people developing approaches to meet the need, and yes, we do see some positive impact of these approaches. But underneath it all we see a business community, and a world, that seems headed towards a multitude of brick walls. Is it a lack of leadership that’s driving our problems? Or is it that we are all so deeply flawed that we couldn’t be led even if the leaders were doing all the right things?
Sometimes I do my leadership development work in the same way I recycle plastic. It seems like the right thing to do, and it makes me feel a bit more righteous, but I know it’s not enough. Leadership Development programs probably do much more good than harm, but I believe there’s something much bigger that’s needed. Perhaps it’s a spiritual gap that learned leadership skills can’t fill. Perhaps what’s needed is an awakening of what it means to be a human being. Perhaps when we teach people to have meaningful conversations and run good meetings, we’re not teaching anything that actually touches their souls. Maybe the Leadership Development industry helps people get more work done, and get along a little better with one another, without a strong push for the real transformations we need to see in people – leaders and followers alike. Maybe what we do in the Leadership Development world is psychologically sound, but spiritually lacking. Perhaps it’s time for all of us to aspire to something more than being a good teammate or a top producer.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not throwing in the towel. I will get up tomorrow morning and try again. At Path Forward, I believe we have faithfully worked toward our stated mission of reducing suffering in the world. I can’t stop myself, you see — I want to do good, and doing some good is better than doing bad, or doing no good at all. And after all, it’s my business and my livelihood to do this work. But I will be asking myself tougher questions – real questions – about the nature of my work and my industry, and how we can meet the deeper needs that our organizations and our world needs.
And I’ll keep recycling too.