“I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.”

— Alexander the Great

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

— Lao Tzu

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

— Peter Drucker

“People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything.”

— Thomas Sowell

“The very essence of leadership is that you have to have vision. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.”

— Theodore Hesburgh

“Leadership is hard to define and good leadership even harder. But if you can get people to follow you to the ends of the earth, you are a great leader.”

— Indra Nooyi

“Leadership is about vision and responsibility, not power.”

— Seth Berkley

“Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.”

— Warren G. Bennis

“The greatest leaders mobilize others by coalescing people around a shared vision.”

— Ken Blanchard

“Everything rises and falls on leadership.”

— John C. Maxwell

Has the sun set permanently on great leaders? No? Well, where are they – today I see none. I see only powerful groups and many rulers and ruler-wannabes. Exercise of power and leadership are different. We have lots of the former, but a serious vacuum in the latter. Why should this be? Is it ever likely to be corrected – somehow?

Recently, I tried to identify currently visible leaders who seem to exhibit “greatness” in some sense to see where they might be taking us. This effort failed completely. Why? All I can see are the powerful. Are these potentially great leaders, or just exercisers of great power? What is true leadership anyhow? How do great leaders develop? Kind of important questions today, yes?

Perhaps great leaders, whatever this means in practice, can only be identified post-mortem, or post-something. They are individuals who produce significant results, which may be either “good” or “bad”. Think Napoleon here. Seems surely to have been a great leader in terms of accomplishments, but these were hugely destructive to France in the end. Great but not good.

Napoleon Bonaparte, a great but not beneficial (for France) leader.
Napoleon Bonaparte, a great but not beneficial (for France) leader.

Why is leadership so important?

The need for leadership in some form seems to be inborn in critters of all flavors, us human critters included. Without leaders, the mass of critters just mills around, aimlessly in general and too often unproductively for the herd’s wellbeing.

Most people, and critters more generally, are not leaders. They do not have the ability to “lead”, whatever that may require. Worse yet, they mostly want to be led – told what to do. Leading is difficult, and usually comes with responsibility.

Businesses and organizations by their very nature require effective leadership. The alternative is too often chaos, failure, or worse.

From Kristin Kizer via Zippia: “36 Powerful Leadership Statistics [2023]: Things All Aspiring Leaders Should Know”:

“While 83% of organizations believe it’s important to develop leaders at every level of the company, only 5% of businesses have implemented leadership development at all levels.”

“US businesses spend $166 billion on leadership development each year.”

“77% of businesses report that leadership is lacking. While everyone recognizes the value of having strong leadership at every level of an organization, businesses struggle to find and develop leaders.”

These numbers apply specifically to businesses but probably reflect the broader base of non-business organizations as well.

If businesses are trying hard and spending hugely to identify and develop their leadership resources with apparently little success, does this possibly explain the current lack of “great” leaders in our world today?

What is “leadership”?

Despite its acknowledged importance, leadership as a practical concept appears to be quite vague and fuzzy at best. Wikipedia offers this insight:

“Leadership, although largely talked about, has been described as one of the least understood concepts across all cultures and civilizations. Over the years, many researchers have stressed the prevalence of this misunderstanding, stating that the existence of several flawed assumptions, or myths, concerning leadership often interferes with individuals’ conception of what leadership is all about.”

So, leadership is vitally important, but nobody seems to have a generally acceptable idea of exactly what “leadership” is. And developing whatever-it-is leadership costs U.S. businesses around $160 billion a year. A real bonanza for consultants and trainers, which might disappear if their work was successful.

Virtually everybody understands the importance of leadership it seems, but few if any seem to understand just what it is in practical terms: “While we don’t really know what it is, we spend enormous sums each year to develop it.”

Maybe, just maybe, “leadership” is little more than a catch-phrase for stuff that people identified as leaders do – or are. Worse yet, it may well be that leadership effectiveness is highly situation-dependent. An effective leader in one situation may be a complete dud (or worse) in other, and perhaps even most, situations.

Each situation likely requires a specific mix of capabilities to result in “success” by some measures, hopefully results. Matching situations – the leadership requirements of which may be largely or completely unknown or misunderstood – with available leadership resources seems extremely tricky to say the least.

Perhaps those demonstrated-effective leaders self-select (or stumble into) situations in which their abilities match reasonably well to actual situation requirements, whatever these may be. Kind of a random process, which our current leadership success rate seems to reflect.

My lengthy personal experience with leaders suggests to me that most efforts at developing leaders are in fact aimed at developing managers. These two skill sets differ in many respects. If you are interested in my take on this, see here and here.

It may well be that you cannot reliably develop effective leaders, let alone great ones. The necessary leader-situation match for effectiveness mostly just happens. How inconvenient.

What does Sun Tzu say about all of this?

You of course know about Sun Tzu. Sun Tzu was a Chinese military general, strategist, philosopher, and writer who lived during the Eastern Zhou period of 771 to 256 BCE. Wikipedia (see link above) has this to say:

“Leadership is a matter of intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage, and discipline … Reliance on intelligence alone results in rebelliousness. Exercise of humaneness alone results in weakness. Fixation on trust results in folly. Dependence on the strength of courage results in violence. Excessive discipline and sternness in command result in cruelty. When one has all five virtues together, each appropriate to its function, then one can be a leader.” — Jia Lin, in commentary on Sun Tzu, Art of War

Umm … how well does this explain an acknowledged great leader like Napoleon? While his outcomes were mostly complete disasters for France, he is generally considered to have been a great leader in terms of what he achieved.

Okay, so Sun Tzu also seems to have had no idea about what makes a great leader – just like pretty much everybody else.

Sun Tzu, ancient Chinese military general and strategist.
Sun Tzu, ancient Chinese military general and strategist.

Are the folks who run things today actually leaders?

If we start looking for leader-situation matches out there in reality, we will find no lack of people who are in “leadership” positions – those who run almost everything. Some of course, and possibly most, are simply managers or rulers. Managers specialize in getting things done – and done right, as Peter Drucker notes. Rulers just get things they care about done, whether “right” or not. They exercise power, often largely for power’s sake.

Exercise of power and leadership are different. That is, they differ unless you define leadership as simply running things as the top dog or ruler. Napoleon was a great leader of this variety, exercising enormous and unchallenged power. Until his results were in, and the leaders he sidelined stepped up and exiled him.

A governing elite is not leadership but generally an exercise of power. Here, the power is used by a group rather than an individual. Too often, the power is taken rather than bestowed by those being led. And the “elite” usually has a leader or ruler among its members who may or may not be evident to outsiders.

Great leadership in terms of results achieved can be wrong or bad for those who are led, or mis-led. Great does not mean “good” in general, either of the individual who leads or the outcomes that the leader generates.

History is made so much by power-based leaders and assorted tyrants. These individuals unquestionably tell the masses being led what to do and how to do it. There seems in fact to be an almost endless supply of such individuals and their wannabe followers and imitators. Today, we have an abundance – or over-abundance – of these power-based leaders, or more accurately, rulers and ruler-wannabes.

None, in my view at least, are either great in terms of accomplishments, or good in terms of being highly-beneficial to those being led, aka us. They are, as throughout history, just competing in their chosen sphere of influence to be master. Some of course have chosen the global world as their particular sphere.

There exists in other words an almost complete vacuum in our “leadership”.

We do have leaders but not leadership as we would hope for

This seems to be the heart of the leadership vacuum assessment. We have all kinds of people running things everywhere. By “running things”, they are mostly managing to achieve their own objectives, not doing what those being led might hope for.

We non-leaders, aka everybody else, have some kind of expectations of what real leaders should be trying to accomplish. We in fact seem to have a wide range of expectations, many of which are mostly or wholly incompatible and conflicting. A glance at the news each day provides a good sample of this unfortunate situation.

Our huge global population (not over-population as I have argued) provides for a similar relative population of diverse needs, expectations, and many other herd attributes and values. This has become rather chaotic as you may have noticed. So many “leaders”, so little leadership relative to our needs.

Among the competing leaders and rulers today are people like Biden, Xi, Putin, Soros, Schwab, Gates, [… lengthy etc.]. Are these not “great” in some sense, at least to us various herds that are being led for better or (mostly) for worse?

Quite a while back, I had a look at leadership from a different perspective. Among its notes was the following:

“Business publisher Forbes has an interesting list of 75 potential world-changers and history-makers: “The World’s Most Powerful People”. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin top the list, which is probably reasonable. Both are occupied today in changing the world hugely. You don’t have to go very far down in the list to find a bunch of questionable names in terms of being potential world-changers. There are simply, unfortunately, very few of these around today.”

Klaus Schwab, Vlad Putin, Elon Musk, Xi Jinping, Bill Gates, Jordan Peterson, Mattias Desmet
Klaus Schwab, Vlad Putin, Elon Musk, Xi Jinping, Bill Gates, Jordan Peterson, Mattias Desmet

I think that it is fair to say that these “powerful leaders” are all doing their own thing, with only peripheral regard for those being led or ruled.

We have few if any leaders engaged instead in doing our own thing.

Rulers are not leaders but controllers

By “rulers”, I mean those who are forcing, coercing, directing, guiding, and otherwise influencing the actions and beliefs of the great masses. They operate on the basis of power from positions or resources. Rather than leading us, they mostly control us.

Almost needless to add, their interests are rarely consistent with our interests. This means that they are not leading in a way that might generally be to our benefit. They are in most respects just using us. They are not our leaders in much of any ways that we might hope for.

We truly do have a leadership vacuum, but lots of rulers, controllers, and tyrants.

The great leadership example of Winston Churchill

What should we expect from a truly great leader? Churchill may offer a helpful example toward answering this question in practical terms.

Executive and business coach John Mattone briefly described what he considers “History’s 5 Best Leaders”, which included Churchill:

5. Winston Churchill. Arguably the most successful wartime leader in history, Winston Churchill was a master communicator and motivator. Hailing from a humble background, he set his sights high and accomplished his goals through grit, determination, and courage. Few leaders in history could communicate their thoughts and goals to their followers as concisely as Churchill could. His leadership strengths included:”

  • Passion
  • Courage
  • The ability and willingness to learn from his mistakes
  • Perseverance
  • A staunch belief in his followers
  • Humor

“Interestingly, Winston Churchill was not a natural speaker. He developed his communication skills with determination and intent, earning his place in history as someone who continues to inspire people facing adversity to this day.”

“In addition to their unwillingness to compromise and adapt to the world, these leaders share other essential skills. They were all master communicators, they genuinely cared about their followers, and they didn’t shy away from showing vulnerability. They were among the most intelligent leaders of their times.”

The strength that to me characterizes a leader, great or not, is “a staunch belief in his followers”, someone who “genuinely cared” about them. The people being led were an integral part of his vision, not obstacles who needed to be controlled. In this respect, he was one of the people, not a ruler. He served a very special role because of his great abilities and efforts in a wartime situation.

I cannot think of a single so-called leader in the world today who fits this description and example of great leadership. Can you?

Sir Winston Churchill, a great leader.
Sir Winston Churchill, a great leader.

How can we survive in a leadership vacuum?

Given that we seem to have no true leaders available and visible, what are we – the herds – going to do to survive whatever is going on in this leaderless world? We do need leaders, as noted above. Humanity is biologically conditioned to require leadership. Probably evolution is to blame for this inconveniently dependent situation.

I recall reading somewhere that only about 10% of the population is capable of being or becoming an effective leader. Figure probably came from a leadership consulting-training firm pitching various expensive development programs. In any case, my experience suggests that this probable guesstimate may well reflect the general leadership pool size, including mostly lower-level “leaders”. These are what I would see as “managers” rather than real leaders.

Great leaders are unlikely to come from this pool. Even chief executives of businesses and other organizations are more likely to be managers rather than leaders. These individuals often lack vision and tend to follow their executive peers. They manage by diktat rather than by inspiring their folks. They are primarily bosses, not leaders with a powerful vision that is actively shared.

If valid, this is not a very hopeful outlook leadership-wise. But there is hope …

Leaders, and especially those destined for greatness, tend to emerge from situations that match their strengths. Our current situation, to put it mildly, is probably unparalleled in history. Global population, technology, and communications are much different from anything in the past. A new ball game, as they say somewhere, in what capabilities real leadership requires today.

Our current situation is evolving and unfolding so rapidly that “everything seems to be happening at once”, so I just read and agree. This would appear to make it most difficult for even the most agile new leaders to gain a foothold.

Everything seems to be happening at once

It is getting to be a real challenge to follow whatever may be happening right now. The magnitude and pace of change is overloading most people. Who can reliably tell us what is going on today?

If real leaders are struggling to stay ahead of our too-dynamic situation, the rulers and tyrants out there are filling in this leadership vacuum quite nicely. Rulers and tyrants don’t need to know what’s going on since they have their own agenda and resources. They are heading where they want to go, which is unlikely to be anywhere near where most of us would like to go – if we knew.

A leadership vacuum like we have, or so I claim, is a perfect medium for growing all manner of fiefdoms. Without strong leaders, us vassals don’t have much to say in all of this. We go mostly where we are herded by the power-based rulers and ruler-wannabes. Or we mill about, without much if any direction, as leaderless herds are said to do.

Banking system collapses. As I write this (March 13, 2023), banks all over the world appear to be in some state of collapse. Silicon Valley Bank in California has been taken over by the Fed, as has Signature Bank in NYC. Credit Suisse in Switzerland has had trading halted. No doubt much more excitement is on the way.

Next week’s post, assuming next week happens, will look at our money actually being not-money.

You will not be at all surprised to hear that our global leadership is in serious disarray over this happening, which has been predicted only since the 2008 financial crash. Actually, this leadership action (or inaction) simply adds yet another layer of proof that such “leadership” is at best a vacuum, and at worst doing whatever it can to make things worse.

One might even begin to wonder whether this mess is in fact the plan of some invisible leaders. But, it really doesn’t matter much for us herd-folks who must deal with whatever is happening as best we can. The leadership vacuum continues.

Do we really need or want leaders?

It seems possible that our current lack of leadership reflects the fact that today we don’t need or want leaders. We are okay with bosses, managers, rulers, and the odd tyrant. Just so long as they handle whatever is going on that needs handling so we don’t have to do it or even think about it.

True leaders require active followers, those who are willing to participate and to sacrifice. The leader provides a clear and compelling vision and tries to enlist us in achieving this vision. Being a follower is often hard work and risky. Who needs this on top of just trying to function even minimally each day in a very complex and confusing world.

The crazier and more chaotic our world becomes, the more many of us want and need leaders to do the heavy lifting required to survive and cope. If these leaders are primarily driven by their own agendas and interests, so be it. A price many are quite willing to pay.

Even better, the price may not be demanded until much later down the road. It may not even be visible or understood. Maybe we’ll get lucky and it will never hit us. Meanwhile, we are willing to get along as best we can with whatever the current leadership or rulership is requiring.

This acquiescence of course is far from universal. There are always a fair number of naysayers, dissenters, and dissident activists. They mostly see next to zero leadership, but are being “led” unwillingly by much shouting and commotion among the masses. These obstacle-folks mostly create inconvenient friction for the bosses, managers, rulers, and tyrants.

Does this sound pretty much like what is going on today? Sure does to me.

Leadership today is almost entirely power-based

That is to say, leadership as we might like it is almost fully replaced or blocked by any number of power-based individuals and groups. These do not lead, but instead force, coerce, direct, and demand that we non-leaders obey and follow.

Power-based leadership is not “true leadership” that provides a strongly-shared vision and active participation. Power-based leadership requires obedience.

Coping with the world today is so difficult for most people that going-along-to-get-along is the path of least resistance. Literally.

So, we have no real leaders. So what? So long as we have some degree of freedom to exist and function, we are willing to go along with whatever the current gaggle of non-leader leaders may ask.

Perhaps we don’t actually want true leaders.

Going-along-to-get-along (GATGA) buys time for “leaders” to self-destruct

GATGA may well be a decent, if implicit, game plan. Power-based leaders are so often weak, stupid, corrupt, and self-obsessed that their ultimate failure is virtually certain. Recall the string of catastrophes masquerading as Roman emperors. All came to bad but well-deserved ends. Marcus Aurelius perhaps excepted. Our leader-guys are likely to fare just as not-well.

Roman Emperor Nero, role-model for self-destructive leaders.
Roman Emperor Nero, role-model for self-destructive leaders.

Fighting against the tide seems pointless today. The bad guys are steadily pursuing their mostly perverse ways. A better strategy for us obstacles might be to let these nasties self-destruct. Which they will, given sufficient time and rope.

Such a strategy requires survival. Survival, however defined, may be a decent goal since our alternatives realistically are quite limited. In the good old days, this was known as keeping your powder dry.

Power-based rule – I really have to drop the “leadership” term here – has great difficulty dealing effectively with small groups that can operate mostly under the radar. It is designed and operated for controlling large masses.

This means that those opposing such power must do so within the existing power framework. Loosely-coupled, highly-flexible associations are essential.

At the risk of repetitiveness, I think here again of the 2006 German movie “Lives of Others”. Operating under the radar is far from easy and requires great caution with respect to associates and partners, as the movie illustrates.

Power-based rulers are self-selected, not developed

A quick final note on where the strongest “leaders” come from. They are not developed in some manner by wise counsellors, trainers, and teachers. Instead, these individuals are mostly power-seeking opportunists who exploit any convenient situation for their own purposes. They don’t lead; they dictate, rule, and otherwise force their agenda on weaker masses. They are typically quite nasty people so far as I can see.

Not leaders, but power-based rulers and ruler-wannabes. Or maybe just front-men?
Not leaders, but power-based rulers and ruler-wannabes. Or maybe just front-men?

Bottom line:

It seems pretty clear that we have today neither great leaders nor even good leaders. We have in fact no leaders at all. We have instead powerful groups and their many rulers and ruler-wannabes. Exercise of power and leadership are different. We have mostly power-based “leadership”, which does not lead but just orders, demands, controls, and coerces. Even gets a bit tyrannical in a few places, if you can imagine that. This situation looks like it will be with us for a while – until the power-based rulers and kin self-destruct. Which they always do. The trick here is to survive until then, while doing what we can to hasten the process and to distract them with nuisance obstacles.

Related Reading

“Bouthaina Shaaban, a special advisor to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is a remarkable woman, fiery and candid. Her presence at Valdai was nothing short of electric. She stressed how ‘since the US war in Vietnam, we lost what we witnessed as free media. The free press has died.’ At the same time ‘the colonial west changed its methods,’ subcontracting wars and relying on local fifth columnists.”

“Shaaban volunteered the best short definition anywhere of the ‘rules-based international order’: ‘Nobody knows what these rules are, and what this order is.’”

“She re-emphasized that in this post-globalization period that is ushering in regional blocs, the usual western meddlers prefer to use non-state actors – as in Syria and Iran – ‘mandating locals to do what the US would like to do.’”

“And still, as new geopolitical and geoeconomic fault lines keep emerging, it is as though West Asia is anticipating something ‘big’ coming ahead. That feeling was palpable in the air at Valdai.”

“To paraphrase Yeats, and updating him to the young, turbulent 21st century, ‘what rough beast, its hour come out at last, slouches towards the cradle [of civilization] to be born?’”

“Leadership, both as a research area and as a practical skill, encompasses the ability of an individual, group or organization to ‘lead’, influence or guide other individuals, teams, or entire organizations. The word ‘leadership’ often gets viewed as a contested term. Specialist literature debates various viewpoints on the concept, sometimes contrasting Eastern and Western approaches to leadership, and also (within the West) North American versus European approaches.”

“U.S. academic environments define leadership as ‘a process of social influence in which a person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common and ethical task’. In other words, leadership can be defined as an influential power-relationship in which the power of one party (the ‘leader’) promotes movement/change in others (the ‘followers’). Some have challenged the more traditional managerial views of leadership (which portray leadership as something possessed or owned by one individual due to their role or authority), and instead advocate the complex nature of leadership which is found at all levels of institutions, both within formal and informal roles.”

“In the field of political leadership, the Chinese doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven postulated the need for rulers to govern justly and the right of subordinates to overthrow emperors who appeared to lack divine sanction.”

“Pro-aristocracy thinkers have postulated that leadership depends on one’s ‘blue blood’ or genes. Monarchy takes an extreme view of the same idea, and may prop up its assertions against the claims of mere aristocrats by invoking divine sanction (see the divine right of kings). On the other hand, more democratically inclined theorists have pointed to examples of meritocratic leaders, such as the Napoleonic marshals profiting from careers open to talent.”

“In the autocratic/paternalistic strain of thought, traditionalists recall the role of leadership of the Roman pater familias. Feminist thinking, on the other hand, may object to such models as patriarchal and posit against them ‘emotionally attuned, responsive, and consensual empathetic guidance, which is sometimes associated with matriarchies’.

“Comparable to the Roman tradition, the views of Confucianism on ‘right living’ relate very much to the ideal of the (male) scholar-leader and his benevolent rule, buttressed by a tradition of filial piety.”

“Machiavelli’s The Prince, written in the early-16th century, provided a manual for rulers (‘princes’ or ‘tyrants’ in Machiavelli’s terminology) to gain and keep power.”

Niccolò Machiavelli, Italian diplomat, author, philosopher and historian.
Niccolò Machiavelli, Italian diplomat, author, philosopher and historian.