Is modern leadership failing us? | Third Space
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Is modern leadership failing us?

How do we respond to widespread leadership failure and the feeling of being betrayed?

Is modern leadership failing us?

Mon 2 Mar 2020
How do we respond to widespread leadership failure and the feeling of being betrayed?
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Everywhere I turn, every news outlet or online journal is filled with stories of the failure of our leaders.

And it’s across the board. Corporate leaders, political leaders, cultural leaders, religious leaders. There’s no particular common feature other than failing leadership.

It feels like a game of Wack-a-Mole. Push down one leadership crisis here, another one pops up over there.

People have lost faith in their leaders, and are increasingly vocal about it. Whether that’s calling out Hollywood for turning a blind eye to sexual abuse; calling out the church for, among other things, also sexual abuse; or voters changing governments every election cycle, people are no longer putting up with bad leaders.

Yet at the same time we’re desperately throwing all of our eggs in the leadership basket. This is the deep irony. Faced with a leadership crisis, any leader who comes along who promises to be the strongest leader possible, and the only one who can “drain the swamp” of our failed institutions, will get our vote.

The crisis of confidence in our leaders is the tip of an iceberg. We no longer trust our institutions, and because these institutions are led by… well, led by leaders, we don’t trust them either. Yet the only way to change the institution is to get a strong enough leader in there who can wrestle the changes into reality.

Cue the vicious circle!

So what’s led to this loss of confidence in our leaders, and is there a way back? In this first of two blogs posts on the issue, some reasons why this is happening:

1. Leaders are no worse than before, it’s just easier to find out about it

The now disgraced, and convicted, media mogul Harvey Weinstein was not the first powerful man in Hollywood to abuse his power and gain sexual favours. But he’s the one we all know about. Why? Because those once abused and silenced now have the ability to join the dots in a way they never did in the past. They are finding a voice through a means previously unavailable to them.

While, sadly, many of those tut-tutting over Weinstein turned a blind eye to him in the past, it only takes one comment on Twitter or another social media site today to start a ball rolling. Rightly - and wrongly - a reputation can be exposed as false, and then shredded in next to no time.

In the past a bad leader, a toxic one, could continue to be abusive and hide the evidence by isolating the victim. The continued abuse of others depended on those previously abused never joining their voices together. The #MeToo movement killed that idea stone dead. Once it went viral in Hollywood, Weinstein’s days were numbered. Given what has happened, he may be the last of his breed, though don’t count on it.

Scrutiny is the enemy of the bad leader. Whether that’s tightened regulations in banks, stricter vetting processes in churches, or hashtag movements in Tinsel Town, the bad leader is only one tweet away from exposure.

Similarly, has systemic abuse in religious institutions only occurred in the past fifty years? Not necessarily. But with the increasingly secular shift away from organised religion a fresh spotlight is being shone on institutions otherwise protected by government or cultural forces.

So, religion is losing its seat at the table, and with that loss of power and influence, has found itself being exposed for historic crimes that it would once have gotten away with, and indeed did get away with. Sadly, this reflects badly on the secular powers who, like Hollywood, were willing to turn a blind eye for the same of expediency. The Oscar-winning movie Spotlight is a brilliant and searing exposé of how religious and secular institutions combined to silence the church’s victims.

2. Our institutions are failing to deliver and have resorted to spin (and we accept it)

The great irony of national media institutions calling out politicians for bad behaviour and lies, is that those very same media institutions are no longer trusted as they once were. Back in the day on US TV, Walter Cronkite would sign off the CNN newscast by saying “And that’s the way it is.” And we’d believe it.

We no longer believe it. Or at least half of us don’t. We simply reply, “Well that’s your perspective”, or increasingly we yell: “Fake news!”

Yet we only do that to the news that we don’t agree with. In the US those who watch Fox News don’t trust CNN to tell the truth, while no one watching CNN believes anything said on Fox News. Increasingly we shape ourselves away from uncomfortable truths about those who we champion politically or religiously, because we don’t want to believe the bad stuff. We will give a hall pass to a bad leader, as long as they are our bad leader!

We end up filling ourselves on a diet of news and information that affirms our take on the world, and rejecting any perspective that says otherwise. The internet gives, but it also takes away. When we purchase a book from Amazon, we are given a list of books that are either like it, or that people who bought the book we just bought, have also purchased. It’s a clear-cut case of confirmation bias.

This is not healthy. This means that we excuse poor leadership from our tribe on the basis that to call it out would be to give our political or philosophical enemy a toe-hold. Unless we are willing to hold our own side to the same standards that we call for from the other side, then we are exacerbating the leadership problem. We need to own up to our part in the problem.

3. The promotion of self is our highest ideal

We have fought for the rights of the individual for so long, and affirmed the individual’s single-focused desire to overcome all obstacles to reach their full potential, that we have little ammunition left to fight off those narcissists who see that as a green light to do exactly that.

We are steeped in a culture that champions the individual. And while this can raise up amazing leaders who are caring, compassionate, brave and forthright, it gives plenty of wiggle room for those leaders who are self-focused to the detriment of all others, who “get stuff done”, and who can justify breaking a few eggs to make the omelet.

For every person who is in an abusive relationship who takes hope from the meme “surround yourself with positive people, you don’t need negativity in your life”, there is an equal and opposite person who uses that approach to bulldoze their way over anyone who says no to them. And unless an institution has a cultural DNA that calls this out, then its nigh on impossible to change this.

The groundwork has been laid for narcissistic leadership because at very few points have checks and balances been put in place to say “Stop!”. And as recent history proves, saying “Stop!”, being the whistleblower in either a bank or a large corporation never wins you friends!

Of course, there is more to this issue, more negative, but also, thankfully, more positive. Just recently I read an excellent list of attributes of good leadership, and in the next post I will explore what this looks like. And the guts of what good leadership looks like begins with the idea of leadership being about service: “servant leadership” is what we are looking for. And that’s what we will look at next time.

Images: Forbes (Scott Heins/Getty Images) and news.com.au (Matthew McDermott)

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