A Failure of Vision
The leadership failures over the last three decades have largely been failures of vision. In every case, leaders missed the opportunity to offer a bold vision that would have brought people together and enrolled them in a journey to be part of something extraordinary.
Back in February of this year, I wrote a blog titled Character and Backbone. In it, I argued that the pandemic presented us with a man on the moon moment and we blew it. What was needed, I asserted, was leadership grounded in a combination of character and backbone, two qualities missing, for different reasons, from both the Trump administration and the early days of the Biden presidency. Just one month earlier I had written a post titled Our Crucible Moment in response to the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol. Here’s what I wrote then: Events like these represent crucible moments. Opportunities to reconstruct the systems of values and beliefs that unite us as families, communities, and nations and that determine the actions we take. Crucible moments also test us. Do we take a step back as a society, double down on failed strategies, and exacerbate the very conditions that produced the moment? Or do we evolve and create a new paradigm that not only changes the rules of the game but the game itself? This choice between regression and evolution is fundamental. Unfortunately, there has been little evidence since those writings of the kind of bold leadership needed in times of crisis. Indeed, such failure of leadership has been the reality for much of the last three decades. In each crucible moment, leaders have, for the most part, failed to step up. President George W. Bush’s invitation to the nation to go shopping following the September 11 attacks, while arguably well-intentioned, fell woefully short of what the country needed. Nor was his war on terror the kind of unifying vision the times demanded. While the country eventually emerged from the Great Recession, Barack Obama’s presidency did little to alter the arc of this country’s future. Donald Trump inherited an already fracturing nation, but instead of offering a vision for healing the country, he instead did his very best to deepen the fissures separating us. President Biden promised a different presidency, a new kind of leadership. And yet, here we are virtually unchanged. A pandemic still rages, and two giant pieces of legislation that have the potential to transform American society sit stalled in a divided Congress. If you compare these successive failures to leaders before them, a pattern begins to emerge. Mahatma Gandhi brought freedom and liberation to an entire nation. FDR reshaped the American economy in response to the Great Depression in ways that still affect how we live today. He and Winston Churchill were able to summon entire nations to defeat the combined forces of Germany, Italy, and Japan in World War II. The Truman and Eisenhower administrations conceived of and put into effect the Marshall Plan and the building of the interstate highway system, respectively. JFK announced a bold plan for the U.S. to be the first country to put a man on the moon, which it did just eight years later. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. offered us a dream of a country free of racism, a vision towards which we have made significant strides and that lives on to this day. Nelson Mandela’s tireless efforts, despite being imprisoned for 27 years, dismantled apartheid in South Africa (although an absence of leadership following his death threatens to unravel this legacy). Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, whether you agreed with their policies or not, helped usher in a new post-Cold War world order. The common ingredient in each of these cases was a bold, unifying vision that created a new future for people to live into. Each of these leaders offered something new, exciting, and big. A narrative that offered hope for a future that would leave their children better off than they were. Their visions inspired millions of people to take action in service of something bigger than themselves. Leaders over the last three decades, in contrast, have failed to do any of this. Their failures have largely been failures of vision. In every case, they missed the opportunity to offer a bold vision that would have brought people together and enrolled them in a journey to be part of something extraordinary. Instead, they either catered to the narrow interests of their party or lacked the nerve to risk upsetting the loud, minority of voices, on both extremes of the ideological spectrum, who have been permitted to wield too much power. For those of us leading businesses, organizations, or teams of people, here is the lesson in all of this. Stop playing it safe. Stop trying to meet everyone’s needs. Stop walking on eggshells. Stop apologizing. Instead, dream big. Take a stand for a bold future and enroll others in a vision that is both crazy and achievable. One that inspires people to bring their best each and every day. One that will bring the very best from you. Not everyone will like it. Some will even try to sabotage it. It doesn’t matter. You have been given the privilege and responsibility to lead. So lead. Now. Tuesday Tips
In his recent column, “This Is Why We Need to Spend $4 Trillion,” David Brooks is pointing to the same need for vision. The piece is not so much an argument for the amount of spending as it is for the bold thinking that is needed to galvanize this nation to do extraordinary things.
GQ’s article “Secrets of the World’s Greatest Freediver” chronicles Russian freediver Alexey Molchanov. Here’s an excerpt: “The seemingly unique techniques of freediving, then, translate beyond the bounds of freediving. To other sports, to work, to relationships with colleagues and friends and family. There are, it turns out, benefits to better breathing, to masterful body control, and to pursuing the state of mindfulness that is required to plunge to unfathomable depths without freaking the f*ck out and accidentally killing yourself.”
Everyone seems to be talking about cancel culture and this particular recent Atlantic article, “The New Puritans,” on the subject. It’s worth reading.