Recently, in thumbing through some old files, I rediscovered copies of a speech and an article I authored on two occasions in the mid to late 1980’s. I was honored to be invited to deliver the commencement address to the Spring 1985 graduating class at Stephen F. Austin State University and, in 1989, I was asked to write an article for The Texas Lyceum Journal. The subject of both was Leadership and I was struck by how relevant they still are to my thinking, so I decided to share critical passages from them with Pilgrim readers, as follows:
With the possible exception of love, leadership is probably the most discussed and least understood topic in our society. There are very few definitive studies on it that are in popular use, yet leadership is a term that we use almost indiscriminately. In his 1978 book on leadership, James Macgregor Burns defines two basic types:
- Transactional leadership – this is by far the most common type. It is one in Which the leader and the follower exchange one thing for another – jobs for votes, for example – and is basically the traditional power relationship that often connotes dominion or control wielded by a holder of power. It is a bargaining, manipulative kind of leadership very often based on trade-offs among competing interests.
- Transformational leadership – this is more complex because it employs vision and a sense for the needs, motives and anxieties of those who would be followers, and it provides a means for converting followers into leaders. It is based on mutual understanding between leader and follower, mutual trust, a sense for responsiveness to societal changes, and a commitment to the building of consensus on the critical issues.
It is the subtle differences in these two types that are so important today and that have produced a desperate need for this rarest type of leadership, the transformational variety. Never in our history has there been such a void and a need and, conversely, such an opportunity. In the past 25 years, we have seen an amazing erosion of true transformational leadership. Our relationship with leadership seems to have been replaced by the cult of personalities, and our leaders by celebrities. We seem to have a devotion to trivia about people centered on the private lives of our leaders—we seem to know a lot about our leaders, but place on them far too little demand for true leadership. And most of the time, we get just what we want, or should expect.
Opportunities for leadership skills abound; we have a proven need for it. So what do we do?
This, I believe, is step one: we must develop an understanding of the basic differences in the types of leadership we produce. Our society has plenty of transactional leaders—plenty of power brokers, plenty of people who would lead by celebrity cult or by exchanges of one favor for another. We must understand and seek to provide a higher degree of transforming leadership—the type that produces fundamental growth and develops new leaders for the future, the type that provides moral leadership, seeks consensus, provides mutual stimulation, and does not shy away from the occasional leap of faith. The type of leadership that truly values statesmanship, stewardship, and integrity of purpose highly above partisanship.
For too long, the more common type of leadership has been acceptable, based on the traditional power relationship and often a bargaining, manipulative style. And in the private sector we confuse true leadership traits with good management skills, or those attributes that produce efficiency, order, and often success in business, at least by the traditional standards. Don’t misunderstand me, good management we need, and good management skills are in short supply, but the leadership we need has very little to do with the functional aspects of managing.
Step two is simply getting involved. We in this country have a responsibility for individual commitment. It’s part of our heritage. The responsibility for the stewardship of our values is ours—yours and mine. We have spent much of the last fifty years transferring leadership to entities far detached from those who need it and whose expectations are to be fulfilled. In the past few years there have been signs that this trend is reversing itself through private sector and personal initiative and a return to volunteerism. It is crucial that this trend continue and that these initiatives succeed—in our schools, our communities, across the nation, so that a sense of “neighborhood” is cultivated once again. This is the necessary active involvement that Professor V. O. Key spoke of when he concluded, “the critical element for the health of a democratic order consists in the beliefs, standards and competence of those who constitute the opinion leaders and activists. If a democracy tends toward indecision, decay, and disaster, the responsibility rests there, not in the mass of the people.”
Our nation is in the midst of watershed transformation—the “third wave”, as Alvin Toffler has called this period. We have the future shock of the ever increasing pace of technology, the globalization of communications and markets, new definitions of values and lifestyles, new and more difficult tests of the old systems of evaluation and standards. Business as usual is out of business. This transformation in our society demands leadership to match, leadership that has vision, that exercises power prudently and for the right purposes, that is not afraid of the quantum leap in pursuit of excellence. Henry Kissinger once said: “true leadership involves taking people from where they are to where they have never been.” This is the leadership it is our responsibility to develop.