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What Needs to Change About America’s Leadership Today?

We’re obsessed with leadership, but we don’t quite understand it.

The current state of leadership in America today is bad.

We’re obsessed with leadership, but we don’t quite understand it. We overemphasize leaders to the detriment of institutions. To change this, we need to ask ourselves what roles we want leaders to play within our institutions, and choose leaders based on those criteria. We think about leadership as something that’s way upstream, when in fact it should be downstream from broader concerns.

Our expectations are unrealistically high because we’ve created a pedestal that leaders have to stand on, or else we might not think they’re a leader. We push leaders to try to meet unrealistic expectations, to “act” like an all-knowing and all-powerful figure. We applaud those behaviors because we think that’s what leaders should look and sound like. And then we have a cycle where that bad behavior is reinforced.

We attribute too much to leaders.

There are a lot of ways in which this is true, but it feels as though this is a moment when we’re particularly guilty of buying into what our book, Leaders: Myth and Reality, names “The Attribution Myth.”

We attribute too much to leaders, having a biased form of tunnel vision focused on leaders themselves, and neglecting the agency of the group that surrounds them. We’re led to believe that leadership is what the leader does, but in reality, outcomes are attributable to far more than the individual leader.

When our mental model of “leader” is of someone who has the power to drastically change things all on their own—when our mental model of “leadership” overemphasizes the individual leader—that encourages us to pick leaders who fit that model. We’re less likely to choose a leader who communicates a more modest understanding of what he or she is ultimately capable of doing.

The long term effects of this view of leadership are particularly perilous. When we want unrealistic things from leaders, it creates the space for outrageous leaders to emerge.

There are some general things we can do to make this better.

For leaders living in this critical moment in time, their best tactic is likely to embrace rather than deny their own humanity—to resist the urge to make claims that reinforce the heroic images. If we want moral leadership in all aspects of our leadership, this is the pathway.

For followers, we need to re-educate ourselves on what sort of leadership our institutions demand. Take the election, for instance. We’re obsessed with the back-and-forth of the campaign season, where two leaders are pitted off against one another. But do we ever pause and ask, “What specific role is a member of the House of Representatives (or Senate or state senate or assembly) supposed to play?”

And there might be some specific, more drastic things we can change. Anything that helps us to contextualize leaders as an important part of the system, but not the system itself.

For instance, staged debates might help us learn about political candidates’ temperament. But beyond that do you really learn anything more than which of the candidates delivers the sharpest one-liners, or has the highest capacity to entertain an audience? Wouldn’t we learn more, if say, we gave a leader one hour and a whiteboard to answer an important question?

The purpose of such an approach wouldn’t be just to know how the candidate stands on a particular issue, but instead to understand their overall approach. After all, in this age of incumbency—where the person you vote for is unlikely to be voted out of office for quite some time—voting on single issues, we’d argue, is less important than understanding who the person is and how they approach problems. As voters, we are all accountable for all the outcomes of the leaders we choose, not just our favorite issue.

In summary, leaders still matter, but we as followers have agency—and responsibility.

This piece was adapted from the answer to "What is the state of leadership in America today, and what needs to change?" that was asked during a recent Quora Session I hosted along with my co-authors, Jeff Eggers and Jason Mangone.

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