Leadership. There has been a lot of talk about it lately, or more to the point the lack of it. In common talk it is defined as “Doing or standing for the things I like” far more often than is useful. But most people will agree that the inability for our US Government to do something about a large deficit coupled with a lack of support for genuine growth comes down to a lack of leadership.
I argue that this is to be expected, given the horrible lack of leadership everywhere in the developed world right now. Can anyone name a powerful nation with good leadership? Perhaps you can name a few businesses that have it, but not many. How about social leadership? Religious leadership? Are there more than a few people in rich nations anywhere who have a strong following that is capable of getting done what they want or need to?
Then again, the lack of leadership is hardly surprising. It is not about a charismatic figure that molds the masses to action – it’s about getting things done. That requires strategic thinking, and strategy is something horribly under-appreciated. I might chalk that up to excessive selfishness or a failure of moral character in our world, both of which are issues. But upon reflection, it seems to come down to a lack of understanding of what Strategy is and why it is important. And how we got here may well be fascinating.
Teaching strategic thinking is not impossible. People who have served in our military, especially as officers, have been through programs that teach how to be strategic and achieve goals. They tend to be very different from the general population as a result – and invaluable to us all. I do not know how this is done, and would appreciate feedback from anyone who can help.
What I can give you are counter-examples of horrible failure, starting with Washington. But the best example has to be Occupy Wall Street, a group that deliberately refused to be strategic and eschewed the very idea of “leadership”. Their failure to accomplish anything must be pointed out as foretold in their attitude. Yet that attitude is very common among young people who have seen leadership abused and come to think of it as personality driven. It’s not. A good strategy can develop its own leadership organically.
Let’s start with what I mean. To get something done you have to start with a Goal. It’s something you want to do, to change, to achieve. I’m not talking about a “vision statement” full of buzzwords – the only good vision I’ve ever seen was Microsoft’s circa 1982 – “A computer on every desktop”. That was a vision, but for all its power it still only defined the Goal. A successful organization or campaign always keeps its “Eyes on the Prize”. What are we trying to do here?
That brings us easily to Strategy, which is little more than the roadmap between where you are and the goal. That may seem like a very passive way to look at it, but a Strategy is rather passive. It should only change when there is new intelligence about the lay of the land and where danger lurks.
Finally, there are Tactics, which are how you advance through that map towards the Goal. They are the action, but they are born in the more passive coolness of the Strategy.
The separation between Strategy and Tactics is what usually trips people up. For example, the Senate Republicans had been blocking everything that came their way. This is not a Strategy, it is a Tactic. It says nothing about the obstacles coming or the path that has to be taken. A Strategy is about what is beyond you, not what you do. The lack of that understanding renders Tactics to rote, such as blocking everything – a passive exercise where there should be action.
How did we get this way? This is what may be inherent in the long-wave cycles which run about a lifetime in length. In good times, people learn to keep on keepin’ on, doing the things that have always been successful. Why not? As long as they work it makes sense. But what happens when everything changes? Strategy is about the territory ahead, and when that is unrecognized Tactics often fail to advance – that’s when we enter the “Winter” or Depression stage as we are in now. Passive behavior turns into survival mode. The only viable solution is a new Strategy, which is to say a new lay of the land.
This may seem to be very far away from the concept of Leadership, but it is not. Separating the functions of Leadership from the personalities shows how it can become what Occupy really wanted in the first place – more democratic and open. That implies that everyone understands the shared Goal, but more importantly that they understand how Strategy itself works.
What is Leadership? It is an understanding of how to organize and accomplish things in a complex world. The lack of leadership we see at the top is merely a reflection of the lack of understanding of leadership throughout our society, which is to say how to think strategically. Perhaps we should listen more to those trained in the military, but we could also listen to the wisdom of Lao Tzu from Tao Te Ching 17, written 2,500 years ago:
The existence of the leader who is wise
is barely known to those he leads.
He acts without unnecessary speech,
so that the people say,
“It happened of its own accord”.
That’s a leader who teaches the lay of the land ahead. That’s a leader who understands Strategy. What do you think?