09/11/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Our Leadership Crisis

In Britain right now there is a raging discussion about leadership -- unfortunately however it is of the pragmatic kind relating to UK politician David Miliband's comments with regard to the future of the Labour Party and of course indirectly the leadership of Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

While it is true of course that the general issue of leadership crisis is not entirely new it is the case that more recently there is a recognition internationally that there is a lack of leadership in the way we previously understood it. Indeed, there seems to be a broader sense of not knowing how to give a lead.

Thus it is that we witness a plethora of focus -groups and ever increasing attempts to form some kind of 'connectedness' with the population. From e-voting to policies that attempt to promote 'social inclusion' however, they often fall on deaf ears.

In the US we may think this is less the case with what appears to be a dynamic election race, yet in fact what characterises the run up is an absence of leadership at the level of politics and compelling ideas that act as precursors to new action, which in the end is how leadership is executed.

This is mirrored in the corporate world. Far less common today is the bastion of risk-taking and visionary leading. The Jack Welch's of this world are no longer representative. Risk awareness was something that was developed within the corporate world and promoted ever increasingly by consultants - which then became more common as risk consciousness in the outside world encouraging the notion that we should be concerned about everything around us and reshaping the view about the human condition as one in which we are at risk from things rather than the previous idea that sees humans as history making agents that can shape the world around us.

Paralysed by fear and the refusal to take responsibility and be held accountable for actions in case things turn out sourly, business heads and managers increasingly hid behind management consultants and advisors that are outside of the organisation to form strategy. With a myriad of fall guys in place, they feel 'safer' that they will not be punished for poor performance. This has taken a toll across society. Not only does it impact innovation and pushing through boundaries, it also contributes to slowdown and stagnation. In the political realm of course it is disasterous as it leads to the consolidation of the idea that politicians (and politics) is simply about bureaucratic grey-suits who are often corrupt, power crazy individuals with no sense pertaining to the common good.

The point is always mad that greed is the defining characteristic of humanity these days -- Radio 4 investors -- city traders talk about the buzz but when it comes to the credit crunch they blame the
flawed nature of man.

It is of course an interesting question that we should keep revisiting of just what precisely it means to be a man today. While recent comments by British Conservative Michael Gove suggesting 'lad mags' are responsible for 'feckless fathers'and the breakdown of marriage, misses the real context of what has happened today. While James Brown, the UK founder of Loaded rightly points out that men (and women) are more than what they read, the larger issue has been how society has become mortified by the very idea of universal ideas that used to be associated with being a man -- though actually represented what we thought it meant to be human -- such as courage, strength, heroism, intelligence and perseverance. Of course, for anyone that is an advocate of equality, we always knew these were not gender specific phenomena. However, as Kathleen Parker asks in her latest book, we do wonder where have all the real men gone? Indeed, women may seem to be even more pessimistic about society. However, this is not a battle between the sexes, rather something that seems to be undermining our whole idea of what humanity is.

Unlike some, I do not believe the issue of fear has been conspired to keep everyone cowering, rather, the problem is broader, whereby there is a societal disintegration in believing in common, universal values. When society at large cannot even agree let alone motivate a vision of the world that is desired it becomes clear that the crisis in leadership is interwoven with the broader crisis in how we see ourselves historically, sociologically and politically in the world today. The very idea of the human condition has been transposed from one in which the experimental nature of moving forward, taking risks and giving a lead has been replaced with limits to growth, sustainable non-impact development and perhaps worst of all, a childlike approach which assumes 'better safe than sorry'. Not only are these not inspiring visions, they are counter productive to all that is best in the human story. It is not surprising then, given this context, that while many young people are enthusiastic about Barack Obama, there is also increasing concern that he is voicing general platitudes about 'hope' and 'change' with little debate about substance. We should not be surprised then, that while the "volume has increased between partisan individuals, leadership and politics is at an all time low.

If we want to resuscitate leadership and encourage a robust sense of can-do again, we need first to understand the fear and stasis that characterizes and gives shape to our times. Alongside that, a discussion about the very nature of leadership and the values that inform it -- with the role politics has to play at the heart of it. If we don't do that, we will be cowering and hovering in a world where we will increasingly experience things as 'happening to us' rather than us forging the landscape. Only once we are ready to jettison the outlook that humans should have a gentle footprint and limited impact on the world will we able to rise to the challenge of real leadership once again.