The deep divisions present in our country at this time seem to constitute a leadership crisis, and those of us in the executive development business need to engage in self-examination.  Some Americans are beginning to question the viability of democracy itself.

I share the view expressed in the famous quotation attributed to Churchill that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”  Lincoln’s view that American democracy is an “experiment” is also a view I share—there is no guarantee that it will work out in the long run.  Without good leadership it will surely not.

Most of us in executive coaching and development are not involved in preparing government leaders.  So how is the current crisis relevant to what we do?  The forms of leadership that prevail in all other institutions, and which inevitably provide candidates for public office, will eventually be reflected in the chambers and offices of government.

The irony of the situation is that while we hear constant claims of a need for better leadership in our country there is an avalanche of leadership advice.  You could easily spend a couple of hours every day just reading new postings on LinkedIn about how to be a better leader.  Seminars and webinars abound on the subject to the point of becoming a commodity. Business books, recommended no doubt with the best of intentions by consultants and former executives, proliferate like uncontrolled weeds.  (One of the worst of the recent lot is Trillion Dollar Coach, on which I wasted time and money last year.)

Remember the famous line from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner?  “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.”  Has our national obsession with leadership development turned this resource into virtual salt water for the mind and spirit?  It fails to solve the problem, and when consumed in quantity, things become worse.

Most leadership development focuses on pleasing your boss, pleasing your peers, pleasing your employees, and pleasing your customers.  Future—and current leaders—are thus encouraged above all to defer to and accommodate the opinions and preferences of others to advance their own careers.  Such people used to be referred to as toadies, opportunists, sycophants, flatterers, or creeps, but certainly not leaders.  Since Congress currently has about an 15% public approval rating, ,would it be fair to say that these words sum up how most Americans see most of their elected officials, on both sides of the aisle?

Five things are needed for great leadership, which I will cover here only briefly:

  1. A foundation in principles, political, economic, and/or religious, that transcend self-interest, which, I believe, can be compatible with free market capitalism. In fact, a commitment to the latter system is an example of a foundation in principles which carries with it the responsibility at least not to undermine that system.
  2. Moral standards for advancing those principles. Some things are obligatory, such as treating all people with respect and fairness, and others are forbidden, including slander, theft, fraud, intentional harm, etc.  These may seem obvious, but then why are they so often violated?  Education in moral reasoning is also essential for when values come into conflict and difficult choices must be made.
  3. Courage, which is necessary to resist the inevitable pressure to sacrifice principles and standards, and the ridicule and contempt that will be aimed at those who do not give in. Military leadership education and training nurtures the growth of one kind of courage.  Where is parallel training present in executive development?
  4. Willingness to sacrifice self and career for your principles. If you are not willing to make costly sacrifices for your principles, they are not really your principles at all, but merely expedient tools to be discarded when they no longer serve your ultimate principle, which is typically self-interest.  George Washington declined the offer to be made king of the US after defeating the English king, due to his commitment to the principles of democratic government.  Napoleon did the opposite following the execution of King Louis and the reign of terror by crowning himself emperor, thereby showing the shallowness of his commitment to the principles of the French revolution.
  5. Skill in advancing one’s principles. This is where training in emotional intelligence, skillful communication, and negotiation comes in, areas in which executive developments spends so much of its time.  Financial and technical skills are included here too.

If we as developers of executives focus only on #5, then we need to ask what our own fundamental principles are and whether we are promoting the leadership needed for an advanced capitalist democracy to survive and thrive or whether we are merely promoting sophisticated opportunism.  The neglect of the other four is not a neutral position but rather communicates tacitly that they are not worthy of serious attention.