Where Have All The Leaders Gone?

The world has been captured by the high stakes drama of Wall Street's bad dream, and the cascading reports of bad news on companies, eroding capital markets, the legacy of greed, big debts and mounting foreclosures, and the threat of our global financial system slipping into panic. As I write this, the U.S. Congress, sleep-deprived and angry, seems finally ready to frame a response that will calm the roiling markets and avoid the carnage predicted by our "leaders."

There's no shortage of bad news and Cassandras crying despair and doom. Jack Welch says "we are in for one hell of a deep downturn...the first quarter of 2009 will be brutal." He likened the crisis to Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express" in which all the suspects turn out to be guilty, but he singled out the role of investment banks in the crisis. Further adding to investor's anger is the fact that Wall Street's biggest firms paid more than $3 billion in the past five years to their top executives while they presided over the packaging and sale of loans that helped bring down the investment banking system.

These are the times we should turn to our leaders for counsel, comfort and confidence, but the deep splits in our executive and legislative branches inform the sense that our leaders and our institutions are faltering and have gone astray. It difficult to sort the foreground from the background in this crisis, and there are few voices we trust anymore.

Peggy Noonan writes in her new book, Patriotic Grace, that our leaders have lost their way and our confidence, that "they've forgotten their mission; that the old America in which we were raised is receding, and something new and quite unknown is taking its place...there is even a feeling, a faint sense sometimes that we have been relegated to the role of walk-on in someone else's drama, that as citizens we are crucial and yet somehow...extraneous."

All of this comes to focus in this election season, where the 24/7 news cycle, driven by sound bites and instant polls, pushes the candidates forward and often down our throats. Do you worry that neither candidate is up to leading this country? Up to the job? The awesome challenge? Can we really consider Sarah Palin, renegade, rockstar soccer mom, ready to be a whisper away from the Oval Office? Can charismatic Obama or war hero McCain move from bromides about change to straight, tough and clear talk about plans, priorities and prudence? The bailout of our markets will leave neither party wiggle room for new plans. Tom Friedman noted recently that "a vision without resources is a hallucination."

How then do we re-engage the millions of Americans who want to believe in hope and horizons again?

Our experience with our current leaders isn't encouraging. Bob Woodward's The War Within, the final volume in his four-part Bush oeuvre, renders an extremely harsh final appraisal of President Bush. In a stinging epilogue, Woodward concludes: "For years, time and again, President Bush has displayed impatience, bravado and unsettling personal certainty about his decisions. The result has too often been impulsiveness and carelessness and, perhaps most troubling, a delayed reaction to realities and advice that run counter to his gut." Students of history and leadership have lamented Bush's certitude, intolerance of dissent and poor management of Iraq policy, including the legal overreaching of his anti-terror campaign.

Where does this leave us?

Our work, our practice, our calling is leadership. We have the privilege of working with many exceptional global leaders and their companies, and a number of leaders who aspire to be better. While we have libraries of tools, resources, case studies, best practice examples and years of experience leading ourselves, in this moment we are called upon to ask better questions, insist on clarity and candor, and press our clients and ourselves to move through the fog of lousy leaders and dishonest, even corrupt practice. We need to recommit to telling the truth about what we know and don't, inviting our colleagues to enter into a daily conversation about the work we are doing together, and framing simple processes to keep one another engaged and committed.

The election will soon be over. But our need to be and become better leaders and citizens has not diminished. It's never been more urgent for us all than it is now.

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