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A Case for a Leadership Education Renaissance

By Stephen A. Spagnuolo

“Where’s the leadership? . . .”

I’ve been hearing this question asked with increasing frequency over recent years . . . The question is often directed at corporate management teams and select professional sports organization, and seemingly always at the US Congress. I hear it certainly weekly on ‘Morning Joe’, the early morning news+political commentary show, and almost daily right now amongst the various candidates on the presidential campaign trail (usually in reference to each other).

Indeed there exists today a vast leadership education void that spans most areas of American society . . . save the US military service branches and a handful of corporations (e.g. check out the innovative leadership development programming that Under Armour deploys across its organization).

For discussion purposes, this piece will use the US Congress as a case focal point. But the message is universal . . .

For nearly a generation now, we as a nation have been witness to an increased and perhaps shocking state of polarization, aggravation and stagnation in the halls of the US Capitol. The people’s representatives it seems have altogether abandoned national priorities in favor of their own local, parochial and/or party agendas.  To be sure, to  survive  and  thrive  a  US  senator  and  representative  must  embrace  multi-layered  and  often  conflicting priorities—this is the reality of the business of politics.  But the very real distrust and discordant attitudes held by members of Congress of late in the aggregate have seemingly not been on display heretofore.  Folks simply are not working together to do the business of the people for the people.

So what does leadership have to do this anyway? Our representatives are well-educated people, many of whom are among the best and brightest of our nation; presumably all are genuine patriots. Though, however capable they may be otherwise, without a base level of leadership education/training and ideally practical experience to draw from—where collegiality, communication, collaboration, service, pragmatism and trust are a must for attaining and sustaining mission success—members of Congress, and any professional for that matter, simply cannot possess an informed appreciation for the practical benefits of setting personal agendas aside to work collaboratively to achieve meaningful outcomes for the greater good. In this context then is the current state of play in the US Congress really so surprising?

Over the past two decades we as a nation have experienced at least two and arguably three major technology booms, including the one in which we’re presently living. Indeed our technology/services-led economy has brought great relative advantage to most/all sectors of our society—we are more connected and have more access to content rich information than ever before. This is a good thing. However, our collective focus on and appreciation for the force multiplier effect that strong, substantial and sustaining leadership brings to an organization’s mission critical execution has not kept apace with our diligent work to make all things better, faster and more transparent. Assembling a team of the smartest people to design and develop a new and needed product is a noble and worthy endeavor; but once the product is built and marketed, then what? How do we scale, innovate and diversify around that product? The answer is quite simply . . . strong, dynamic leadership.

Aside from the classrooms and training fields—and of late battle fields—offered during voluntary military service, where do leaders of organizations attain their core leadership foundation? MBA programs are certainly beneficial. But exposure to a basic education in leadership principles will always remain relatively limited here. There is only so much leadership training a university can work in to a broad two-year business management curriculum. Never mind many/most aspiring business leaders will never attend an MBA program—just look at all the countless entrepreneurs in our midst who have built successful businesses. As for traditional services platforms—e.g. law and consulting firms and doctors’ offices—being named senior or managing partner is certainly commendable, but this recognition often is not bestowed due to one’s leadership talent; rather it’s usually because the person named is functionally the best of the group at what she/he does. No one’s fault necessarily; it’s just the way it’s always been.

Great leaders possess the ability to identify, harness and maximize individually and collectively the full talent potential of their people and organizations to achieve a stated mission over a sustained period.  Leadership then is the “stuff” that connects the full set of operational skills to a vision. How well an organization is led directly correlates to how well an organization executes its operating objectives on a consistent basis over an extended period. Call it sustained superior performance. To go further, organizations—be they large corporates, startups, not-for-profits, public and private schools, government agencies, professional sports teams—that are dynamically led are best able to attain and maintain a leading peer competitor advantage. These leader-led organizations as a matter of practice continually look beyond the horizon to identify new opportunities and challenges at their earliest moment of inception, long before they arrive at the proverbial doorstep, to prudently act in anticipation versus belatedly react in haste.

Dynamic communication is the leverage that leaders utilize to drive their organizations forward. How do good leaders develop effective channels of communication? It’s all about knowing your people. The best leaders truly understand their people. Empathy plays a big part here; as does situational awareness. Perhaps most importantly, a deep and natural  sense of followership will  guide a  leader to understanding  her/his  people, individually and collectively. To lead is to serve is an often-heard and perhaps over-used phrase; but embodying a service-first attitude and spirit is absolutely necessary to finding one’s innermost self as a leader.

Trust is the essence of leadership. Open, timely and transparent communication and delivering on  stated commitments imbues trust; and trust is the fabric that great leaders weave through an organization to bind it together. Without trust, there is only failed leadership. Without trust, there is simply command, which is the hollow form of leadership. In today’s complex and informed society, a command-led structure, based only on position of authority, will fall short every time. Whereas a leader-led organization is built upon a foundation of trust. Trust provides depth of leadership across all layers, which in turn gives way to genuine collaboration among operating units, community organizations or as the case may be political parties.

This all might appear on first glance to be pretty basic stuff. Indeed these are the basic elements of leadership to the well-schooled, experienced leader. But their collective importance cannot be overstated.  The great leap here then to leader is moving from studying and talking about a handful of concepts to actually incorporating these elemental meanings in to one’s very nature and soul.  What makes the natural leader stand out as truly inspiring is her/his ability to effectively execute with grace and ease and confidence across all situations and scenarios.

Back to the US Congress. Certainly there are more than a few strong leaders in today’s US Congress. But how many members of Congress, and more generally across corporate America, have actually been formally schooled in leadership as a subject in one form or another? The answer is likely few. Why is that? Perhaps counterintuitively, there are relatively few substantive leadership education program offerings available in most undergraduate and graduate curricula at US universities. Nor will one find an abundance of meaningful and extensive leadership training embedded in most US corporate platforms. It’s been widely reported that this current Congress has fewer military veterans amongst its elected ranks than any preceding sessions in history (though those numbers are more recently slowly rising post Iraq/Afghanistan). We also know as a matter of record that law is the leading stated profession among US senators and representatives. The study and practice of law offers a great many educational benefits and professional opportunities, not least of which is learning how to logically and laterally think in depth to resolve complex issues. But take a survey of today’s tier-one and tier- two law school programs, and you will be challenged to find substantive leader-learning programs widely represented in course offerings.

To be sure there is a grassroots leader development movement emerging. Jack Welch, the legendary former leader of GE, in 2009 created The Jack Welch Management Institute, now part of Strayer University; an online MBA and Executive Certificate program founded upon The Welch Way leadership principles. Not to mention we’re seeing a striking number of notable warrior-leaders, of the past 15-years of combat overseas, launching leadership mentoring consultancies oriented to corporate management teams. These are consequential and cutting edge programs, and surely there are others to come.

But more needs to be done . . . Why for instance must students wait until their university years to be formally taught leadership as a subject (assuming such a course is available)? What  about the  many talented and ambitious young adults who choose to not attend college? There is surely a treasure trove of leader talent potential among this group. Why shouldn’t all high school seniors across the nation be offered an extra-credit (ideally mandatory) leadership capstone course for the entire school year?

The earlier we can instill in our next generation corporate, civic and community leaders a deep and lasting understanding of and appreciation for the fundamentals of effective and dynamic leadership, the more expansively we can grow a leader-rich society . . . where selflessness, purposeful engagement and pragmatic decision-making win the day.

Stephen Spagnuolo leads the CyberSecurity Practice for ZRG Partners, a global executive search and leadership advisory firm. He brings over fifteen years of experience recruiting senior and next generation corporate leaders on behalf of a wide-ranging client base, from leading global  investment banks  to pre-funded emerging growth companies. A graduate of the US Naval Academy, he formerly deployed to multiple overseas contingencies as a Marine Corps infantry officer.

Editorial note: This piece in earlier form was originally published in April 2014. The call for strong, dynamic leadership across all sectors of our US society and global community is arguably dimensionally louder today than 2 years ago; and so it is with this in mind that we have updated and reprinted for a second broadcast.