Bad leadership is on the march in the world today. The paradox of our times is that we have the best educated leaders in history, but the general quality of leadership they provide is so bad.
Let’s start with our political leadership. At all levels. Starting from the very top and going all the way down to the local level (which is an area I’ve personally been observing up close recently) appears to be rotten to the core. Sure, there have always been problems, and there has always been some endemic level of corruption, but recently we seem to be suffering from an epidemic of bad leadership. At least in earlier days, politicians had sufficient sense of shame to try to hide their transgressions. Nowadays, it’s all about winning and partisans on both sides are willing to excuse any behavior as long as their side gets more votes.
But politics is just the most obvious arena where we have a leadership crisis, business leaders are no better. In their relentless pursuit for shareholder value or a cover photo on Forbes, CEOs seem to be willing to encourage or at least pretend not to notice egregious violations of customer trust and even of the law. Get caught doing something wrong? No problem, just hire a few lawyers and PR flacks and it will soon go away.
What about religious leaders? Nope; too many of them seem to have become shills for the politicians.
Surely at least we can look up to our military leaders, right? Wrong again. According to USA Today, “Since 2013, military investigators have documented at least 500 cases of serious misconduct among its generals, admirals and senior civilians.”
It can be almost overwhelmingly tempting to observe what’s going on and simply withdraw into ourselves. For example, my wife reminds me that we were both happier before we got so familiar in the past year with what is going on in local politics. Maybe it’s best to ignore the crisis of leadership around us and just cultivate our own garden.
Unfortunately, withdrawing is not an option, because the growing power of bad leaders will simply mean that they will intrude more and more into our lives. The only way out of our leadership crisis for each and every one of us who cares about our own small circle of responsibility, our company, or our nation to fight the problem. We need to step up and be the leaders we want to see.
The first step is to do no harm—don’t add to the problem by engaging in the same behaviors and misconduct. If you succumb to the “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” mentality, the bad leaders have won.
The next step is to take ownership. Don’t sit around saying someone should do something about ____; that someone should be you. You may not be able to do as much as you would like, but you can probably do more than you think. And the example you set for others may turn out to be your force multiplier.
The third step—and this is exponentially harder—is to actively battle the leadership crisis. Speak up against what you see around you. If someone is abusing their power, call them out. Of course you have to be smart about it, but there are ways to speak truth to power without getting yourself fired. (That’s a topic for another blog post.)
In the end, we get the leaders we deserve, so it’s up to us to ensure we don’t let the bad leaders win.