Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

8.5 min read

Greg L.Thomas

One Leader’s Perspective

I was preparing to present a Sunday morning leadership seminar recently and someone from the audience came up to me and asked a thought-provoking question. He quizzed me by asking abruptly, “Where have all the leaders gone?” At first I was puzzled so I asked him if he could expand on his question.

His reply was blunt. “Yes, he said, why don’t we have leaders in the world like we used to?” After a brief discussion, he stated, ”I guess since we don’t have leadership in the world anymore the only thing left is to just talk about it!” His statements are a reflection of what many people believe today. It seems to many that we don’t have the quality or quantity of leaders today as we did in the past. Is this really true?

To answer this question we must first ask and answer another question, “Just what is a leader?” A common myth is that leaders are individuals who are either powerful, prominent, charismatic or have legions of followers. This is simply not true. Yes, it is true that some individuals who have the above mentioned qualities are leaders, but some of the most effective leaders do not have any of them. Frankly, having served in various management positions for over 20 years has taught me that many organizational CEO’s and presidents couldn’t lead a group of people out of a well lit room! The perception of “where have all the leaders gone” exists because the labels of “leader” or “leadership” are so often misused and misapplied. The reality is that most leaders are not in formal positions of power. A loose definition of the word “leader” can delude you about leadership. For example, we might say that a policeman can lead a prisoner to jail. In this case, the policeman is not a leader but a captor. The policeman and prisoner do not share the same goal. The policeman is demonstrating coercion and power, not leadership. Real leaders almost never have a need to coerce or intimidate others in order to accomplish a mission together. Leadership and power are two entirely different terms. Some leaders do have formal positions of power but the majority do not.

So just what is leadership? Here is my own formal definition. Leadership is the ability to articulate a vision, to embrace the values of that vision, and nurture a positive environment whereeveryone can reach the organization’s goals and their own personal needs. This means that leaders effectively combine individuals and resources together to accomplish things that would be virtually impossible to achieve alone! It does not require power, prominence, charisma or dozens of followers to be a leader. Leadership is a value-based philosophy, not a collection of tricks, tips, gestures and the right words during a time of need. Leadership authority James O’Toole reminds us that a leader’s vision becomes the follower’s vision “because it is built on a foundation of their needs and aspirations. They see in the vision what they desire, and they embrace it as their own.” He continues that, “There are no contingencies here; the only course for the leader is to build a vision that followers are able to adopt as their own because it is their own”.

What effect has our modern culture had on leadership? It has had a profound effect especially within our western democracies. Allow me to provide an example in the arena of political leadership. The basic framework of a democratic culture is a pride of individualism and personal independence. Our powerful electronic media also plays a significant role in how we react to or judge those in leadership positions. Before World War II, leaders were primarily respected by the media and were presented with a positive image in spite of their flaws. Today, the reverse is true as the media now often focuses on leaders flaws in order to promote a negative image. As a result, many individuals are now more skeptical and resistant toward anyone who attempts to offer new ideas or a new direction. Because of this deepening rooted culture, leaders are not as respected or even acknowledged as they were in the past. This is true not only in the political arena but in all areas of leadership.

Indeed, our democratic principles and media influence have had a powerful effect on leadership in the last 50 years. In reality, most of us in the western world don’t really seem to want ongoing leadership in our society! We feel threatened or confined by others attempting to lead us to new paths or ideas. If we are honest with ourselves, what we want is “leadership on demand”. We want to be able to call on leaders during times of crisis and then watch them ride off into the sunset when the crisis is over. We appear to want leadership only whenwe want it and on our terms. At our convenience, we now live in a civilization of instant coffee, instant breakfast, and instant communication. We now expect instant leadership, but apparently only at the times we want it.

Perhaps the most profound example of this was at the end of World War II. Winston Churchill had demonstrated an astounding example of leadership for the British people as prime minister. His indomitable spirit and oratory excellence had inspired his people with a vision of endurance and victory over the German empire. For a period of time, before the United State entered the war, Churchill’s leadership galvanized the will of the British people to stand alone against Nazi tyranny. Few would question Churchill’s leadership abilities, especially at a time when they were needed the most. Yet, what happened immediately after the war? In the first post-war election of 1945 Churchill was removed as British prime minister as his Conservative party gained only 213 seats in a Parliament of 640. Churchill was the same leader he had always been! But the British people wanted to put the war and its leader behind them. They no longer wanted his kind of leadership after the war. Instead, they chose to support a Labour platform of economic and social reform.

Another reason there may appear to be a dearth of leadership today is demonstrated by a “bumper sticker” I have seen. It states very clearly…”LEAD… Follow…or get out of the way!” (Actually, it wasn’t put as nicely as I worded it here). In order for anyone to lead, there must be followers. Leaders and followers need each other. If there are no followers, or potential followers don’t care, all the leadership skills that anyone can possibly exhibit, will be in vain. (I will discuss the important qualities of followership in next months weLEAD article entitled, “Where have all the followers gone?”) But, as the “bumper sticker” implies, there is an important third category. It is neither leadership nor followership but that of the uncommittedobserver. This third category is a growing force in our modern culture and makes leadership more difficult than ever before. The observer is typically not interested in a mission or a vision, but in maintaining a distance from leaders and followers. From a leadership perspective, this detachment saps the potential creative resources and ideas available from the observer. Often, their lack of support or commitment may inadvertently create resistance against all efforts at leadership.

I maintain that leadership is as available as ever. The real problem is that followers are fewer and often less committed because our modern western civilization has persuaded many to become uncommitted observers. Some have also become observers because of negative past experiences they witnessed when they attempted to follow a leader! What does this mean for a leader? It means the leader must work harder than ever before to inspire, motivate and encourage larger numbers of observers to make a personal commitment and become followers. This can only be done when a leader demonstrates integrity, self-sacrifice, dedication and respect for the observer as well as their own followers. As author Garry Wills comments, “Followers judge leaders. Only if the leaders pass that test do they have any impact.” More than any time in history, the role of being a leader is more complex and challenging.

Where have all the leaders gone? They haven’t really gone anywhere. Many are still with us and a new generation of leaders has accepted the torch from the past generation. However, the overwhelming majority of them are not prominent individuals and you will not see them on the evening news or read about them in the evening newspaper. But be assured of this, every day a million random acts of leadership are demonstrated in our homes, schools, shop floors, office buildings, government institutions, community projects and religious organizations. Sadly, these accomplishments go unnoticed and under-appreciated because of all the problems that also exist in these same institutions and within our society. Most of these individuals are not in positions of power or great influence. But within their own environments, departments, groups or sectors they are working hard to articulate a vision, and leading others to meet the organization’s needs and their own follower’s needs.

Effective leaders are still with us, facing greater resistance and more challenges than ever. They are not gone, but are attempting to be agents of change in a complex world that usually offers little recognition to them. Next month, we will discuss the essential qualities of followership.

Comments to: gthomas@32john.com

About the author:

Greg has over 20 years of sales and marketing experience within the electrical distribution industry. Some of his positions have included being a National Sales Manager, National Marketing Manager and for the past 9 years that of Regional Sales Manager.  He also has extensive experience in public speaking and has written articles for various publications. In August of 2000, Greg completed his studies for a Master of Arts degree in Leadership from Bellevue University. He is the founder of weLEAD Incorporated.


O’Toole, James. (1995). Leading Change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers

Wills, Garry, (1994). Certain Trumpets – The Call of Leaders. NY: Simon & Schuster

  • Quote of the Day

    “The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.”

    — Kenneth Blanchard