A small book about leadership

This is the start of a book idea.  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?   Here’s my first cut.  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.  Our dreams, the optimism of our youth, the revolutionary ideas of the 1960’s have gone awry. We have changed the world, but not in the way we had dreamed.  We are not the courageous agents of change we dreamed of being.

We are reshaping the planet, but not for the better. Climate change is undeniable and inevitable. Population growth is a reality. The damage that has been done to our ecology – particularly the oceans – is immense. On the social and political level, the gap between rich and poor continues to widen in all societies. Geo-political power structures are in flux.  Revolutions, uprisings and tragic slaughter of innocent people happens daily across the world.

In our own backyard, the so-called Western economies, after several hundred years of continual growth, confront a new and frightening reality. It is possible that, for the first time in hundreds of years, we might lose that wealth and prosperity.  Incredible, for the first time in our history we may leave an entire generation poorer than the one that preceded it.

In North America, the middle class is evaporating. In what were once the wealthiest countries in the world, a new class of “digital serfs” works longer hours, with little certainty or security. Our response has not been to rebuild the wealth of our nation, but to hold on a little longer by exploiting those in third world factories across the globe. It’s not only a sadly immoral strategy, it’s one that ultimately not sustainable.

The economies of the world are changing. The western world is struggling and perhaps even losing its grip. China, India and others are in ascendance, but at what cost? If these nations achieve their prosperity with the same carbon based gluttony that we have championed, the consequences for humanity will be as enormous as they will be tragic.

If there ever was a time when leaders were needed, it is now.

Yet where are they? The death of Nelson Mandela, which inspired me to write this book, feels like the passing of an era of great global leaders. Who among the leaders of this current time can hold a candle to the leaders of the last century – Kennedy, Martin Luther King Junior, Churchill, Ghandi? Even if you revile them – at least Thatcher and Reagan truly led their respective nations through the end of the cold war and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Who fills that void today? Most of our political leaders are a failed promise, a sad joke.   Others exude sincerity but flail like Don Quixote against the giant systems of our time. One of the great hopes of many, the first black president of the United States, Barrack Obama has failed miserably to fulfill the mantra of his first election campaign.  Yes we can?  No, apparently – we cannot.

But if  political leadership is lacking, are their others who could lead us forward? Unfortunately, on the corporate level, the picture is sadly all too similar. Where are the Ford’s, the Edison’s or the Packard’s of then next century?  They are nowhere to be found.  In their place a generation of shallow, greedy amoral charlatans.

The greed of the financial sector almost toppled the economy of North America.  These are not leaders to whom we want to entrust our future. With the possible exception of the late Steve Jobs  is there any other corporate leader with a vision of where real true greatness lies?

These leaders – corporate and political – have power but little courage or courage but little power. But their vision is limited by their greed or at the horizon of their power. For politicians the vision seems to extend only to the next election. Corporate leaders see only to next quarter’s numbers and  the depth of their own pockets. In a time when leadership is so needed, it is lacking on all levels – politically and corporately.

We live in a leadership vacuum.

Yet the hunger was never greater. We are looking for that leadership like never before. We perceive its loss on a visceral level – politically, corporately and at our community level. We lash out at those who abuse our trust in the comfortable anonymity of social media. We are angry at the absence of leadership. We just don’t know what to do.

In the midst of this, in the tiny spec of the universe that I occupy, a friend at the University of Waterloo asked me if I would be interested in teaching a course on leadership. I jumped at the chance.

It was a chance to study and think about leadership seeing it in perhaps a new way. It was a chance to imagine and perhaps future models of leadership. The friend and colleague who asked me was Doug Sparkes. Few if any of you will know Doug. You won’t know his pioneering work with young entrepreneurs. You won’t know the mentorship he has provided. You won’t know the quiet determination and belief that Doug brings to everything he does from his teaching to his battle with adult leukemia. Doug can best be summed up by the quote that sat for so long on the whiteboard in the office. Amid the mess, the paper and the general clutter was one space with a clear message. “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

This quote has been ascribed to everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Peter Drucker.  In the quest for leadership, it doesn’t matter who said it. It matters who lives it and brings life to it.

We are in desperate need people who can lead us to this new future.   Where will they come from?

I could sit and bemoan the problem.  It is not my nature.  I have tried at many points in the past to make my contribution.  I’ve been active in politics, in social movements with little or at most mixed results.  So where can I make my contribution?  I can write.  I can teach.

Which leads me to the question.  Is it possible to teach leadership for this new era? Can we, those who teach and write, help to develop the new leaders and new models of leadership necessary for today’s world? Will it work?

There is the inevitable self-doubt.  Am I up to the challenge? Who am I to claim to teach others how to lead?

All potential leaders – great and small must confront that moment when they look at themselves and say, “do I have the right stuff to do this?”  I’ve had to ask myself the same question.  Who am I to talk about leadership?  I am not a Kennedy or a Ghandi. Yes, I have talents, but I have a vast number of failings.  I hear that inner voice  “Maybe I don’t have what it takes.”   My answer?  “Maybe not.  But  I’m still going to try.”

Isn’t that the first step on the road to leadership?  Not having all the answers, but having the courage to take the first steps.  It’s in realizing we are all on a journey towards our own understanding.  We learn with each step.

For me, the best way  to learn is to teach. Teaching forces me to explore, to think, to confront not only my students but myself with the challenges that make my own learning and understanding possible. In that spirit, I’ve set out on this journey. In the last decade of my own career, I’m going to do what I know how to do. With my students, I’ll look back to analyze and study the past. Together, we’ll try to look honestly into today’s mirror to see things as they truly are. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll also be able to look forward and add our tiny contribution to inventing the future of leadership – together.

1 Comment

Filed under Change, Commentary, Leadership

One response to “A small book about leadership

  1. Sindhu

    Hi Jim, I am a student of yours in the leadership course in UW. I enjoyed reading this blog, specially the idea of leaving readers with the question, “Can we those who teach and write, help to develop the new leaders and new models of leadership necessary for today’s world?
    Also, the last para is pretty awakening. I feel you are already leading us in the right path……

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