THE BLOG

Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me

03/13/2015 10:23 am ET | Updated May 12, 2015

The currency of leadership is the future.

The future is what leaders deal in, and, ultimately, it's where they will be judged.

The leaders we admire most are pioneers.

Pioneers create a vision of what the future looks like, and they energize those around them to join the journey to get there.

This is not simply a matter of the head.

It is a matter of the heart.

Think of Ronald Reagan's 'Shining City On A Hill'. Or Martin Luther King's 'The Dream'. Or Nelson Mandela's 'Free and Equal Society'.

Many of us in public life or business call ourselves leaders. But leadership is not a title. It is a mindset. And the mindset of many 'leaders' today is too often one of management.

There is nothing wrong with management.

Good management is essential to the well-being of any organization. It is what ensures that staff are paid, that deliveries are made and that the wheels are kept on the machine. But it will not tell the machine where it is going, or why. That is what leadership is for.

In the second half of the 20th century, the notion of leadership was too often conflated with management and, in particular in the UK, the insidious 'management of decline'.

The ramifications of this mindset still play out today in politics, in statecraft and in business.

Politics is easy when you are building, 'on the up' and offering clear choices in simple language. Politics is easy when power is concentrated, when the rules are clear and, while they might not agree, everyone is all playing on the same chessboard.

Politics is hard when the power is fragmenting, when the rules of the game are in flux, and when there are players willing to turn the chessboard over. Politics is hard in the periods when your constituents don't think you, or any of your rivals, matter -- and wouldn't trust you even if they did.

Similarly, statecraft is easy when your people are in a pioneering mindset. The diplomats who manage empires aren't the people who build them. They are preceded by traders, explorers, innovators. The great civilizations were all built on great startups.

Statecraft is hard when you are competing with players with greater pioneering zeal, when your nation loses its creative edge or hunger for innovation. Statecraft is hard when lack of resource or confidence leads to an introspective national mindset, rather than a drive to find new ideas and sources of renewal.

Business is easy when your costs are low and your exports guaranteed into markets that have been established and maintained through military hegemony. It's easy when others don't have the technology, IP or wherewithal to profitably replicate what your business does.

But business is hard when the world is smaller, pacier. It's hard when your products or services have become commoditized through the rise of Asia, or digital; or both. Business is particularly hard when the 'Operational Excellence' that got you and your business to the top offers, at best, only diminishing returns.

We need, all of us, in business, diplomacy and politics, to make life more 'easy' again for ourselves.

This will not be achieved by turning back-the-clock, building bigger walls around us or turning inwards, but by demonstrating relevance, and by staying hungry and agile.

To do this, leaders need to create aspirational ambitions that are readily accessible by those they lead.

That goes especially for the Brits. 'Hanging on in quiet desperation' might have been the English, or even British way, in the second half of the 20th century.

But in the 21st century, it will not suffice.

We need more.

We want more.

Because the market for something to believe in is, well, infinite.


Nick Jefferson is a partner with the advisory firm, Monticello LLP.

Tom Fletcher is Her Majesty's Ambassador to Lebanon.