THE BLOG

Uncomfortable Truths: Where Are The Great Leaders?

05/22/2013 04:08 pm ET | Updated Jul 22, 2013

You don't have to be an expert in leadership to see that there is a critical shortage of great leaders in the world today. Problems we face are not being addressed by "leaders" we have. No one wants to rock the boat in ways that Gandhi or Martin Luther King were so willing and able to do. And it's not like there is a shortage of big issues to tackle, just leaders to tackle them.

Great leaders speak the truth, no matter how uncomfortable or inconvenient. They are ready and willing to call the issues out. Consensus just doesn't cut it in a polarized world. President Obama can't cut any deals. Compromise is not a feasible strategy when the political poles are so estranged, not only from each other but from reality. The only outcome is a watered down "fix" that solves nothing and satisfies no one.

We need leaders who are willing to tolerate their own discomfort and of making others uncomfortable on big issues like climate change, equal rights, gun control, food policy, and taxation to name a few. We all perform a little better when we feel a little stressed. A good leader keeps themselves and those around them under enough pressure to perform.

Remaining in our comfort zone is simply laziness. Fledglings are forced out of the nest. Would they ever learn how to fly if their parents continued to feed them? Would they ever leave the nest? Not likely. The big issues are painful. They must be confronted sooner or later. Most issues, like global warming, will only get worse if we continue to turn a blind eye to them.

If the job of a leader is to be grounded in reality and to make everyone just a little uncomfortable, why don't they do it? Polarization makes an elected leader's job more precarious. They need to appeal to both sides, especially the side that is funding them. After all, they want to get re-elected. They know that poor leadership and achieving little is no handicap to re-election.

As a society we are basically content with the status quo. We don't like to be told uncomfortable truths. We avoid strong medicine. We don't like people who want us to take it and we generally don't elect them. Did Gandhi worry about what the British thought of him? Was he concerned about causing offense? Did Martin Luther King fret about being uppity or causing white society distress? We'll never know, but we know it didn't stop them. Incidentally, both were assassinated which is definitely a downside to being a great leader. Great leaders typically find themselves on the wrong side of power and spend a lot of time in jail. Great leaders tend to have great enemies.

It would be comforting to think the best leaders are drawn to business. As so few corporations operate sustainably, you won't find many good leaders there. Vast sums of corporate money are spent on political campaigns and lobbying to ensure the status quo. Buildings where their products are made catch fire or crumble into dust. Only then do they promise to "do something" to prevent tragedies. That's not leadership. I might add that the pennies saved in worker safety also end up in our pockets as savings when we buy articles produced in the same factories.

What about religious leaders? After all, many of the great leaders had a religious affiliation. Apart from the Dahli Lama, there seems to be the same head-in-the sand approach for most religious leaders, be it Christian,Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist. The Catholic Church's failure of leadership on the abuse of children is a case in point.

So if we don't want to be uncomfortable: to pay more for gas; drive less; pay workers a livable wage; pay for safe food, we certainly aren't going to elect someone who tells us we have to do it. Our leaders (such as they are) certainly don't want to spoil the party. Opinion polls are commissioned in the thousands to discover what we want, then our leaders provide it with song and dance.

Of course, none of the great leaders I've mentioned were elected at the outset. Nelson Mandela and Ang San Suu Kyi were elected after lengthy prison sentences and being awarded a Nobel Prize. Gandhi swam in and out of politics. Is it unrealistic to assume we can elect great leaders? There are great leaders out there, telling their uncomfortable truths, with few of us listening. Is it time we paid more attention to leaders are willing to tell the truth, no matter how painful?