For the next weeks and months, I’m going to take a new direction. I’m exploring the idea of leadership as I teach a course at Waterloo on the topic. Emerging from the research and lectures appears to be a book on leadership. What better way to explore that idea of a book than in this journal? So as I can, I will post at least some of the chapters as they are developing. I’d be thrilled to hear your comments, your ideas, your criticism, your disagreements – or whatever you may wish to contribute. We start with the introduction to what I’ve called “A small book about leadership”.
Leadership. The need was never greater.
This is a time of turmoil and disruption. We hear it. We say it. I’m not sure we really know it. At least we don’t act is if we know it. I’m not really sure why. Maybe we don’t really see the change that is in front of us? It’s possible.
The Sufi poet Rumi likened humanity to “a school of fish getting together to try and discuss the possibility of the existence of the ocean.” He was referring to our understanding (or lack therof) of the divine, but as Rumi always did, he exposed the essential truth about all of human existence – spiritual and temporal.
Or perhaps Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman got it right. We are pre-programmed as a species to not see complex patterns of cause and effect and are therefore most of us are blind to macro trends in our lives and history. In Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow” he details our inability as humans to truly perceive these types of patterns and issues. It’s not a new idea – among others, it echoes and explains Peter Senge’s similar conclusion in his groundbreaking book that revolutionized how we see organizations – “The Fifth Discipline.”
A more cynical view might be that we see the truth, but are in simply in denial. We ignore future crisis because we do not have the courage to take on the challenges that we face. We ignore climate change so we can have our current lifestyle. We ignore the environment so that we can consume. We ignore…
A similar, but more compassionate view might be that we see it all too clearly. We are simply so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenges that we cannot face them. It’s not cynicism, but our attempt to rationalize in the face of challenges that are simply too immense to consider. That is what has led to the shrug of shoulders and the mantra of our time – “whatever”.
Whatever the reason, throughout human history, we have all to often been incapable of seeing the great challenges or great opportunities that to an objective viewer seem so obvious. Until something. often something tragic or catastrophic happens.
But on occasion, despite the odds and despite our problems, one, or sometimes a very few of us, rise above the blindness and complacency. These courageous and often lonely souls see what the bulk of us do not or refuse to see. Somehow, someway, they hold a mirror up to us all, showing the challenges and crisis in a way that we cannot rationalize away or ignore.
And they do more. They show us a future that isn’t yet but can be. They galvanize our resolve, muster our courage and they – lead.
Through the travails, the misteps, the challenges and yes – sometimes the defeats, these leaders show us what we truly can aspire to be if we only dare to try. They inspire us to take action and to achieve what we never before thought possible.
From Moses to Churchill, from Ghandi to Martin Luther King, from …. to John F. Kennedy – true leaders have brought us through challenges and transformation — in our history, in our world and in humanity itself.
Looking back, it appears that each of these leaders arrived at a pivotal point – a fork in the road, where choices needed to be made. In retrospect, the choices may seem obvious. But to those living at the time were they really that clear?
Was it obvious that a single man could oppose a mighty Pharaoh and his armies and lead an unarmed, enslaved population to freedom? One leader of Britain had tried to pacify Hitler, but Churchill took on the overwhelming strength of the Nazi armies and somehow held his island nation together where other powerful nations had fallen.
They often were called to make great sacrifices and show astonishing courage. Ghandi – a lone man opposed the might of the British empire with non-violence and compassion, only to lose his live in a senseless act of violence. Martin Luther King led the black population of the US to equality and freedom risking – and losing – his life in the process.
John F. Kennedy challenged a nation to not just look to the stars but to reach out and go to the moon. This was at a time when the US was not only years behind in what would later be called the “space race”. It was at a time when the U.S. space program was plagued with problems.
Despite the odds, despite the obstacles, the impact of these leaders was real and measurable. In each case, the world around them would have been significantly different without their courage, commitment and contribution.
While we focus on the leaders, it’s critical to remember that they did not – they could not — do this alone. They led groups and often nations to believe in the seemingly impossible goals. They saw what others could not. Where others saw the chasm, they saw the leap to a new era. They somehow found a way to bring those around them to confront seemingly impossible challenges, to beat the odds and change the world of their time.
Once again, we are on the edge of a chasm. Continue reading