“My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.”

— Abraham Lincoln

“Do not fear mistakes. You will know failure. Continue to reach out.”

— Benjamin Franklin

“There is no such thing as failure. There are only results.”

— Tony Robbins

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

— Winston Churchill

“Ninety-nine percent of leadership failures are failures of character.”

— Norman Schwarzkopf, US General

“People are not afraid of failure, they’re afraid of blame.”

— Seth Godin

“Trust is equal parts character and competence… You can look at any leadership failure, and it’s always a failure of one or the other.”

— Stephen Covey

“The learning person looks forward to failure or mistakes. The worst problem in leadership is basically early success.”

— Warren G. Bennis

“Leadership is an action, not a position.”

— Donald McGannon

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”

— John F. Kennedy

“Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes.”

— Peter F. Drucker

In times of great stress and great change, leadership becomes especially vital. Almost anyone can successfully direct traffic on a Sunday at 5 AM. Our COVID times certainly qualify as a world of great change, great stress, and great uncertainty. These are times when effective leadership is absolutely critical.

Yet such effective leadership does not seem very evident, to me at least. What I see instead looks more like a lot of groping and following. Is it possible that what we are living through today has simply exceeded the capabilities of most leaders or leaders who are stuck in practices of the distant past (aka pre-2020)?

It may well be that the leadership capabilities and practices of most leaders today have not changed or degraded appreciably during the past two years. What has changed is the enormity and difference of challenges that these leaders must face today and somehow overcome.

Leaders are still leading the past, not today or the future

This viewpoint seems to suggest that our leaders for the most part have not “failed” so much as they have not adapted their leadership to what is going on today. Okay, this is a kind of failure but if a leader was effective in past, the primary, proven, leadership qualities and capabilities are still there.

If so, then the apparent “failure” of leadership today must lie in a growing mismatch between these solid, proven leadership capabilities and what is required of leadership in our new times. This means that, to restore leadership effectiveness, two challenges seem to be central:

1. To identify what is required of leaders today and going forward – operationally

2. To develop the necessary capabilities in existing and new leaders.

The good leaders are still around but they may not be well-focused on the new requirements, most of which are not at all obvious. But there is much more to this story …

What is “effective” leadership?

A Google search on “leadership development” gives over 2 billion results. Our apparent lack of effective (i.e., results) leadership today means that nowhere in this extensive pool of expertise and experience is what we need right now. Or maybe it is just hiding.

More likely, however, is that what is needed today simply hasn’t yet been identified or naturally emerged. What is different about the world today as compared to the world of the pre-2020 past? Besides “everything”?

When we believe that our leadership has failed in some sense, what exactly do we mean? What is it that has failed – in specifics clear enough to address and correct it?

Peter Drucker, I think, had it right: “Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes.” What we may be basing our assessment of “failure” on is that we are not seeing the results we expected from our leaders.

This in turn raises the question of what are the “results” that we were expecting?

Lots of things out there need “fixing” in at least some respect but which of these are we expecting our leaders to handle for us? Priorities?

Our current leaders for the most part have many of the most important requirements of leadership. Otherwise, they would not have risen into positions of visible leadership. The problem is that these capabilities, which worked well enough in the good old days, don’t seem to be working in our times of COVID. Why not?

Are our leaders actually “failing”, or just not doing what we expect?

And what is it that we are expecting?

A world out of control and our leaders do not seem able to fix it.
A world out of control and our leaders do not seem able to fix it.

Somebody do something!

After more than two years of COVID-times leadership, things still seem largely out of control. And probably getting worse. Why can’t anybody – such as our putative leaders – do something that fixes the world?

What needs fixing? Everything. What should the fixes look like? Who knows – that’s what leaders are for. How will we know when important things are fixed? More in the “who knows” category.

Perhaps the sense that our leaders are failing is more along the lines of a generalized cry for help: Somebody do something! Even if we really have no idea of exactly or even roughly what we want. If so, then leaders for the most part will have no idea either. That’s more than a bit scary.

Leaders’ Job #1 today: Set expectations

If we have no real idea of what we want from leaders apart from the not very specific “fix everything” cry, then it seems that the leaders’ first job is to decide both what needs fixing and the outcomes that might realistically expected.

This is where the primary leadership capability of “vision” comes into play.

Leaders are expected to sort out the world for us: (1) to decide what to pursue; (2) to set priorities among the most important of these; and (3) to communicate both what is going to be done and what to expect in the way of results. Then the strong managers take over.

Leaders who can’t provide vision simply are not leaders. They are probably managers. Managers get things done. Leaders figure out what needs to get done.

A vision-deficient plan for fixing everything.
A vision-deficient plan for fixing everything.

Today we seem to have a major failure of leaders to provide vision

Note that vision is not the results that flow from the leadership vision but instead a strong, coherent, communicable, and motivating direction for the doers. Elaborating this direction requires identifying realistic goals, practical mechanics for achieving these goals, and results that are reasonable outcome expectations.

Leadership vision failure today may simply reflect the unpleasant fact that many, or even most, of our leaders have no better idea of what to do than we have. They are weak in the vision requirement of leadership that is applicable to our times.

Can they develop a vision capability that works today? Probably not, in general. Vision is something inherent in certain individuals. It is in fact a major part of what brings them into leadership positions. Lacking a strong vision capability may lead such individuals instead into managerial and executive roles where leadership vision is largely unnecessary, or of far less importance. Leadership and management are very different roles.

Even an effective existing leader who has some proven leadership vision capabilities is rarely able to apply them to every kind of situation. Like COVID times.

Individual leadership vision nearly always has a limited range of application. Outside of that range, their vision capabilities may not be much better than our own.

This, if true, seems not to be very good news. We need leaders today who can provide vision applicable to the mess we find ourselves in. If we can’t develop such vision capabilities in existing leaders for the most part, we seem to be stuck with waiting for such leaders to emerge organically from the existing pool of potential leaders.

Leaders with vision that applies to the current times are rare.
Leaders with vision that applies to the current times are rare.

Not leadership failure but simply how the world works

Leaders who can address our crazy world are probably out there somewhere but we will have to wait for them to show up, operationally (i.e., proven in action and results). What might we do until this happy situation occurs?

Are we then forced to endure a largely leaderless world for some indefinite period? Worse yet, this leadership vacuum is almost certain to attract some very unsuitable but highly ambitious folks. Incompetent. Self-focused. Even malevolent, if you can imagine such a thing.

The good news here is that this particularly troublesome situation has occurred approximately forever and, as noted in an earlier post, we still seem to be here. Humanity has a wonderful ability to survive and even prosper through the most difficult of times and situations. Like today.

The trick here of course is to be among the survivors and winners.

Those of you who have read some of the earlier posts on Darwin (see here, here, and here) will see immediately where this line of reasoning is going. If we have no real idea of where we are headed, and we have as yet no apparent leaders with vision applicable to our current situation, then we have to focus on agility, adaptability, and resilience:

  • Agility makes us able to move quickly and effectively
  • Adaptability means that we can handle pretty much whatever comes along
  • Resilience means that we can recover from almost any kind of impact

The stronger we are in each of these dimensions, the better we will be able to manage our way through a near-term leaderless world.

So, leaders are not failing but simply no longer matched to today’s world?

This is an important conclusion, assuming that it actually makes sense. Your call here. A person does not fail if their challenge lies far enough out of their range of capabilities. Most of us can’t jump over a seven-foot high fence but this fact does not make us failures at fence-jumping or leading others to attempt this feat.

Today’s leaders are probably going to adjust their targets to those that are mostly within their existing range of abilities. This is likely to result in a narrowing focus in most cases, so that what they are leading toward may well not be what we actually need to be addressed.

Equally likely is that our expectations of what we expect from our leaders will adjust to what these leaders can realistically accomplish. This seems to reflect an unavoidable capabilities vs. expectations gap that cannot in practice be closed but only adapted to. It will be closed only when new leaders with the right capabilities – vision especially, as noted above – emerge.

Meanwhile, we have to manage as best we can in our local leadership vision vacuum.

How long might we have to wait for this vacuum to be filled? Who knows? Under this kind of uncertainty, the best approach is to assume that the situation will remain for an “indefinite period” and manage accordingly.

Why can’t leadership VISION be taught or developed?

Many essential leadership skills can be taught or learned through experience: communication, teamwork, decision-making, and others. The vital vision component of leadership cannot, particularly when the situation is very difficult, changing rapidly, and highly uncertain. Even in normal times, whatever these may be, many so-called leaders are in practice managers because they lack a strong vision capability that is currently situation-applicable.

Vision is a special kind of creativity that you either have or not. You can manage “creatively” to some extent but the real leadership vision that underlies it is something you are mostly born with. Especially the kind of vision that we so urgently need today.

If leadership vision such as we need today could be taught, we would have no shortage of effective leaders. The tens of thousands of leadership consultants and trainers out there would see to that. Surely.

What if the situation is presently beyond any leadership?

It is possible that the apparent lack of leadership today reflects not leadership failure, nor any lack of adequate leadership capabilities, but instead the overwhelming complexity, uncertainty, and overpowering nature of the current situation. A situation that no one could possibly manage, no matter how capable.

If this is indeed the case, then it is probably not productive to “wait” for the right leaders to emerge. They may not emerge because the current situation is not one that can be managed effectively by any available leaders.

We just have to wait for the situation to change into something that the real leaders hiding among us humans can tackle effectively.

How do we go about this waiting-for-leadership-with-applicable-vision exercise? So far as I can see, the only practical option is just to manage locally through agility, adaptability, and resilience, as noted above. This will inevitably involve taking some hits from whatever comes along, making the goal of survival-plus-recovery – that is, impact resilience – paramount.

The next post will attempt to address this in terms of a different type of resilience: non-impact resilience.

Bottom line:

Many, and perhaps most, of our leaders today appear to be failing to deliver what we expect from them in terms of results. Underlying problems remain, and often just seem to get worse. But these same leaders seemed to be doing mostly okay pre-COVID. Something has changed in the world, since these leaders are still out there for the most part. One explanation, proposed in this post, is that the world situation has moved beyond the range where their existing capabilities – particularly with regard to leadership vision – are effective. Still good leaders but only for the past, not today or going forward. The result is a serious leadership vacuum that must be filled by the evolution of new leaders with the right capabilities. Meanwhile, we must be agile, adaptable, and resilient.

Americans' views on major problems facing the nation.

“’Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.’ — Jack Welch”

“Leaders have a vision. They share a dream and direction that other people want to share and follow. The leadership vision goes beyond your written organizational mission statement and your vision statement.”

“The vision of leadership permeates the workplace and is manifested in the actions, beliefs, values, and goals of your organization’s leaders. This vision attracts and affects every employee who is engaged in living this set of actions, beliefs, values, and goals. They want to share your vision.”

“These are the fundamentals necessary for a vision that excites and motivates people to follow the leader. The vision must:

> Clearly set organizational direction and purpose

> Inspire loyalty and caring through the involvement of all employees

> Display and reflect the unique strengths, culture, values, beliefs, and direction of the organization

> Inspire enthusiasm, belief, commitment, and excitement in company members

> Help employees believe that they are part of something bigger than themselves and their daily work

> Be regularly communicated and shared, not just through monthly announcements and reminders at the company meeting, it must permeate all communication at every level of the organization every day

> Serve as the reason for why courses of action are chosen, people are hired, markets are selected, and products are developed

> Challenge people to outdo themselves, to stretch and reach”

Leaders are confused about vision. One reason there’s such an absence of vision-driven leadership these days stems from a misunderstanding about vision. Vision is not the same as mission. Nor is it the same as strategy.”

“Vision is an act of seeing what the future could be, and then articulating that potential in an inspiring, clear, practical, and attractive way—what I call a Vision Script—which the leader’s teams can then follow into the future. That’s what vision-driven leaders like George Eastman did with photography, Henry Ford did with the automobile, and Steve Jobs did with personal computing. They instinctively knew that people are looking for something to believe in, an outcome to embrace, a winning aspiration.”