Where have all the leaders gone?

Driving in my car several days ago I began reflecting on leadership and asking myself if I had ever encountered genuine leadership the way we discuss leadership in these courses. I have, but in my opinion it has been exceedingly rare. Also, I'm aware that I have learned as much about leadership from bad managers who thought they were leaders, as from the few truly exceptional leaders I have encountered.

When I am talking about leaders, I'm not necessarily talking about major players on the world stage. I believe there are a great many people who can be leaders if they choose to rise to the occasion.

The first leader who comes to mind was a United States history teacher I had in eighth-grade, and again in high school. John C. Florkievicz had been a World War II and Korean War infantry soldier. He'd seen a lot, had great stories to tell, and more importantly, was a great role model of someone who never shirked his responsibilities or acted without integrity. He was staunchly patriotic and believed deeply in democratic ideals. He believed that there were things worth fighting for, even things worth making the ultimate sacrifice. He was our hero.

His example changed my life. A poor kid from a poor neighborhood, often in trouble and with poor grades, I had absolutely no idea where I was going or what I stood for, until encountering Mr. Florkievicz.

He inspired us, particularly the boys, but the girls as well. I'm sure he turned a lot of kids around simply by the power of his personality. We would have followed him anywhere. He was a charismatic leader.

I later became a high school United States history teacher. No surprise there, and I'm sure many others made far-reaching life decisions based upon their association with John Florkievicz. I tried to find him several years ago while in my mid-fifties. I simply wanted to thank him as one of those people who has made all the difference. I was unsuccessful and I deeply regret not having acted upon this a lot earlier.

Others I have encountered thought of themselves as leaders, but clearly fell short. In 1966, as a brand-new Second Lieutenant and having left high school teaching for an Air Force career, I briefly encountered First Lieutenant Patrick. Patrick was a legend in his own mind. He thought of himself as a tough leader who accepted nothing but perfection from those who reported to him. Patrick's idea of leadership was to rant and rave, shame and demean, and as frequently as possible find something to criticize.

Patrick would tell me to write a letter and then would proceed to rip it to shreds, loudly telling me it was totally unacceptable and had to be done over. The second through tenth try fared no better. Patrick would become increasingly irate and critical, never offering suggestions for improvement, only harsh denunciation of work he deemed incompetent. When ultimately, our office would be criticized for the letter being late, Patrick would again seize upon the opportunity to hand out more criticism. Within weeks of my being assigned to Patrick's office, I was questioning my decision to enter the Air Force. I was also wondering what would happen to me if I lost it altogether and punched out his lights (a natural enough thought for kids from New Jersey streets).

Fortunately, Lieutenant Patrick received orders for Vietnam. All who worked for him celebrated. You can guess our wishes for his future. As far as leadership goes, Lieutenant Patrick wasn't even on the page.

Yet I am indebted to Lieutenant Patrick. He was imperious and arrogant, perfectionistic and self-serving. He was never going to let anyone serving under him forget that he was a "superior" Officer. So why am I indebted to him? It's because his example has stayed with me all these years and helped me to know clearly how I don't want to manage others. Thanks to Lieutenant Patrick, it's been very easy for me to embrace the concept of Servant Leadership. Years later, surrounded by people who looked up to me and addressed me as "Colonel," I remembered the lessons learned from Lieutenant Patrick and stayed true to my commitment to be a different kind of officer. Yes, I am indebted to Lieutenant Patrick.

Years past. I met a great many managers, but no one who would stand out in my mind as a leader until in 1977 I met Colonel Duane Cassidy. Colonel Cassidy was quiet and unassuming but possessing of a fine analytical mind and great managerial skill. He was able to see things more clearly than the rest of us, gathered data quickly and efficiently, and made superb decisions. My last conversation with Colonel Cassidy was in 1978 on my front porch in base housing. Always impressed with him, I had no idea that within five years he would be wearing four stars and be the Commander-in-Chief of Military Airlift Command.

Colonel Cassidy is a shining example of a superb thinker, a rational and analytical leader.

I haven't known any world class transformational leaders. I'd like to. I really would. I've often wondered what it would be like to have known Gandhi, JFK, FDR, or Martin Luther King. There are many others I would add to the list -- but I've never personally known any.

I'd like to. At this time in our history, more than any other time, I'd be very pleased if there was a political figure to inspire us to be better than we are, to help us have a vision of what could be. I'm looking. We certainly need leadership, but I'm not sure I see anyone on the horizon who qualifies. I certainly don't know of anyone that I would consider charismatic. At this point I would settle for analytical.

"Where have all the leaders gone?" asks Warren Bennis and Joan Goldsmith in their book Learning to Lead: a Workbook on Becoming a Leader. The authors write:

"Where have all the leaders gone? Many of them are, like the flowers of the haunting folk song, 'long time passing.' Leaders we once respected are dead. FDR, who challenged the nation to rise above fear, is gone. Churchill, who demanded and got blood, sweat, and tears, is gone. Schweitzer, who inspired mankind with a reverence for life from the jungles of Lambarene, is gone. Einstein, who gave us a sense of unity in Infinity, of cosmic harmony, is gone. Gandhi, John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X -- all were slain, almost in testimony of the mortal risk in telling us that we can be greater, better than we are."

The leaders we are left with are embattled corporate CEOs, university presidents, governors and political candidates ever eager to convince us of their leadership ability. The "shelf life" of such leaders has been markedly reduced in recent years. Once lustrous images have lost their shine. The days of corporate CEOs seem to be numbered from the moment they take their position.

Bennis and Goldsmith maintain that "Our quality of life depends on the quality of our leaders." They state three basic reasons why leaders are important:

1. Leaders are responsible for the effectiveness of organizations. Whether organizations succeed or fail, the quality at the top is the determining factor. Even stock market prices fluctuate according to the public's perception of organizational leadership.

2. Change and upheaval according to Bennis and Goldsmith "has left us with no place to hide. We need something like a trim-tab factor, a guiding purpose. Leaders fill that need."

3. There is a growing national concern about integrity. Wall Street, believe it or not, was once seen as a place where a person's word was his or her bond. Now there are almost weekly reports of investigations, revelations, and indictments. Cynicism abounds.

And perhaps I'm sounding a bit cynical. I honestly believe I haven't seen much in the way of true leadership, but I'd like to. I really would.


© 2005 William Carey Shearer Ph.D., M.B.A., M.P.H
Robin L. Shearer M.F.T., R.N., M.A., M.P.H.

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