November 1, 2011

Where Have All the Great Leaders Gone?

“The price of greatness is responsibility.”

—Winston Churchill

Real leaders step forward in times of crisis and chart a clear way out. They solve problems, no matter how complex, and give us the confidence that they are in charge and know what to do. We follow not because every single one of us agrees with them but because they inspire us with a vision that we respect.

When I reflect upon great elected leaders of the past century, I am reminded of four: two U.S. presidents and two British prime ministers.

First, FDR. There was more than one solution to the Great Depression and many still disagree with the New Deal, but President Franklin Roosevelt led us through a true economic collapse and a World War. His fireside chats conveyed confidence and reassured all, not just his ardent supporters, that one nation coming together could solve the apparently insurmountable obstacles we faced. We emerged the other side of the Great Depression a better nation.

Next, President Reagan. The Cold War was waged for decades. It took leadership to win that battle, too. A confident President Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate and demanded, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

From across the pond I am reminded of two British prime ministers. First, there's Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady. There was more than one way to reform Britain's welfare state, but Thatcher set up fiscal discipline with the steely spine and grit for which her nation is known.

And finally, there is Winston Churchill. Among his countless famous statements used to inspire his nation, many on national radio, is this: “It is no use saying, 'We are doing our best.' You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.”

That's what great leaders do. They do what is necessary even when it is unpopular.

Great leaders never shy away from the big idea, the bold solution. They have a vision, possess a humble confidence and maintain an unwavering conviction for doing what's in the best interest of the whole rather than any subset of its parts, and they do that even when it goes counter to their supporters. They know how to work with everyone, not just the people who agree with them. CBS' Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer speaking at our Annual Meeting earlier this year said that, at the heart of democracy is its ability to compromise. If and when that ability is lost, its very existence is at risk. Compromise is not weakness just as opinion is not leadership.

When did our elected leaders lose track of that?

When did our leaders lose that confidence, that optimism, the ability to execute a big idea?

Was it when campaigning became a full-time, year-round, never-ending job? Shouldn't campaigning end at some point and governing start?

Was it when fundraising became more important than having a platform that would work?

Why can no one behave above the fray? Why must they all let themselves be mired in argument instead of rising up with a solution?

Did it begin when opinion polls and pundits swayed them from one day to the next? Why are they unable to stick to their guns on anything?

Did it begin with the growth in lobbying and political action committees? Do those groups wield so much influence that they drown out the voice of the voters?

Is it the fault of the media and our ability to watch leaders as if they were reality TV stars 24 hours a day? We all have faults and we all make mistakes and misspeak from time to time.

Leaders, where have they gone?