THE LEADERSHIP CONUNDRUM: Are we being led by followers?

RANCHO SANTA FE, Ca., January 13, 2014 – Our Nation is being crippled by its inability to distinguish between titles and leadership. In the public and private sectors, we bow to titles such as President, Vice President, Senator, Representative, Governor, Chairperson, CEO, Director, etc. Yet, titles do not ensure that the individuals who bear them have the ability to lead. After all, they are only titles.

As a result, our Government and many of our major businesses often mimic powerful ships with broken rudders. The title of Captain, even when bestowed upon someone who likes to stand at the helm, may be meaningless when it comes to turning the ship.

The Business Dictionary offers a reasonably good definition of “leadership” It defines it to be:

“The activity of leading a group of people or an organization or the ability to do this. Leadership involves: 

  1. establishing a clear vision,
  2. sharing that vision with others so that they will follow willingly,
  3. providing the information, knowledge, and methods to realize that vision, and
  4. coordinating and balancing the conflicting interests of all members and stakeholders.”

Think about the elected officials and corporate executives you know.

  • Do they establish a clear vision, or do they offer only muddled concepts and theoretical generalizations?
  • Do they share their vision in a way that encourages others to willingly follow, or do they try to force their vision upon those who may disagree?
  • Do they provide the information, knowledge, and methods that are necessary to realize their vision, or do they use their authority to compel its acceptance?
  • Do they coordinate and balance the conflicting interests of all members and stakeholders, or do they blame others and use their “power of office” to overcome objections and competing interests?

To paraphrase Jeff Foxworthy: They may be a leader in title only if the latter is more descriptive of their behavior than the former.

The Business Dictionary goes on to state: “A leader steps up in times of crisis, and is able to think and act creatively in difficult situations.”

Notice that leaders “step up in times of crisis.” They do not create crises nor exploit them for political or personal gain.

How many elected officials can you name who have started or extended conflicts, damaged our economy and masked social issues with programs that pandered to their constituencies, made appointments and decisions to repay political debts, and/or otherwise exploited their offices to create a political advantage?

Just out of curiosity: How many Democrats are only thinking about Republican examples, and how many Republicans are only thinking about Democrats at this point? Take a moment to reflect upon how that phenomenon contributes to the problem.

Correspondingly, how many senior executives can you name who have blamed their predecessors for their companies’ challenges, reorganized their businesses to disguise issues rather than solve them, acquired more successful niche companies only to replace the acquired companies’ management teams with their own less successful ones, and/or hired or made promotions based more upon relationships rather than performance?

“Too many” might be the most prevalent answer.

As the Business Dictionary also states, leadership requires the ability “to think and act creatively in difficult situations.” Consider what we typically see in the world of politics and in certain private-sector scenarios.

In the public sector, the Parties attract followers rather than leaders; individuals with narcissistic tendencies, who are so desperate to “win” that they are willing to surrender their ability to lead independently in return for the millions of dollars it now takes to compete for public office. Rather than “think or act creatively in difficult situations,” they are expected to conform to their Party’s platform.

Image consultants shape the appearance of our candidates and tell them how to dress. Political strategists parse poll data to determine the positions that will be taken, while professional writers craft the talking points that will be repeated and the speeches that will be read.

Production managers even orchestrate the “human wallpaper” that will appear behind our politicians during their orations; blending races, ethnicities, sexes, and any other visual characteristics into the background that might add credibility to the empty words that will be recited.

The only thing that will be missing is authenticity. We will never know the breadth and depth of our political “leaders,” who they are, or how they think.

The Parties will lead us to believe that, in a country of more than 310 million people, only two individuals are qualified to hold office. Then, each will spend millions of dollars on advertising gimmicks designed to extol the virtues of their candidate while denigrating the capabilities of the opposition. In the end, a relatively uninformed electorate will cast its votes to determine who qualifies as the lesser of two evils.

The 2014 mid-terms are only likely to reinforce this pattern.

Real leadership isn’t even at issue during most election cycles. The promises that are made to win are often meant to be broken. Until the Parties and their puppets are made to pay a price, political history will continue to repeat itself.

In the real world, circumstances give rise to leadership. Those who “step up in times of crisis” to resolve “difficult situations” are true leaders regardless of whether they have been given a title that suggests it. If you doubt the truth of this statement, how many past Presidents of the United States can you actually name and discuss with any degree of specificity? Forty-four individuals have held that title, but how many exhibited the behavior that distinguished them as leaders?

Similarly, in the private sector, the Boards of publicly-traded companies are frequently stacked with “name” members; individuals who are well-known or who bear a perception of skill through the titles they hold (or have held).

Does this guarantee that these Board members will be effective? No. Does it mean that the “corporate fraternity” that sometimes leads to incestuous profiteering might be preserved?  Yes.

Many of these Boards have adopted the same mistake that has sky-rocketed the cost of professional sports. They believe they are competing for talent, so they hire “proven” executives at ever-increasing levels of compensation (for fear of losing them to the competition).

Many of these executives come from very successful companies. That is why they are in “high demand.” It also may explain why many of them struggle when confronted with “difficult situations” since they may never have experienced them. The Bill Gates and Steven Jobs of the world had to “think or act creatively in difficult situations” at one point in time. Many “successful” executives have never faced such a “trial by fire.”

Conversely, other executives may have demonstrated the ability to deliver spectacular short-term results in “difficult situations” but moved on to other organizations before the long-term consequences of their actions could be measured.

Cutting costs to enhance profitability is easy in the short term: Eliminate labor. After all, Wall Street apparently adores mass firings.

Unfortunately, the real measurement of leadership skill lies within one’s ability to create long-term value. Strangely enough, that skill contributes to job growth and economic expansion in a way that many of our elected officials can only pretend to understand.

Correspondingly, over the last few decades, our Nation has experienced an undeniable and unsustainable increase in income disparity. President Obama even underscored the problem in a recent speech; although he chose not to emphasize how dramatically it has worsened under his Administration.

What if we were to apply the principles of leadership to “think (and) act creatively in (this) difficult situation”?

Rather than naively trusting clueless politicians to “redistribute the wealth” through ill-conceived programs, taxation, and regulation, let’s apply free market rules in a novel way. Let’s teach shareholders that they actually own the corporations in which they have invested and have the ability to control the Boards that approve the exorbitant compensation packages we discussed earlier.

What if they organized and demanded that Boards stop escalating executive salaries out of fear? What if they charged Boards with the responsibility to identify emerging talent; individuals who have demonstrated true leadership skills through their innovative vision and ability to create long-term value (often without significant resources)?

The Boards just might discover the next generation of thought leaders like Gates and Jobs at a far lower price point than they have been paying to recruit “big name” executives (many of whom fail).

If the Board members fail to do this, we can vote them out, just as we do with our ineffective politicians. Okay. That’s a bad example.

Seriously though, the capital savings (i.e., trading a $50 million dollar compensation package for a $5 million one) could be redeployed within the companies to grow jobs, enhance productivity, or pay dividends that could be reintroduced into the economy … all those things our Government has failed to achieve in the last 50 years since its “War on Poverty” began.

Henry Ford once said, “There is one rule for the industrialist and that is: Make the best quality of goods possible at the lowest cost possible, paying the highest wages possible.” We have lost sight of that truism.

Instead, Wall Street has become driven by numbers without realizing that the numbers are driven by people. Similarly, our elections have become auctions, which have given us the best Government that money can buy.

How long will it take before we fix our public and private sector rudders and find the next wave of leaders who can steer our ships? If we don’t change course soon, we may ultimately find ourselves lost at sea.


T.J. O’Hara is an internationally recognized author, speaker, and strategic consultant in the private and public sectors. In 2012, he emerged as the leading independent candidate for the Office of President of the United States and the first nominee of the Whig Party in over 150 years.

This article first appeared in T.J. O’Hara’s recurring column, A Civil Assessment, in the Communities Digital News (CDN).