The Real Leadership Crunch

By Sweeney, Catherine | The Christian Science Monitor, June 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

The Real Leadership Crunch


Sweeney, Catherine, The Christian Science Monitor


Since Confucius and Plato, scholars have theorized about how humans lead. Leadership is everywhere - in business, government, and even the home. And yet, as historian and noted leadership scholar James MacGregor Burns has noted, "Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth."

In a presidential election year, our thoughts turn naturally to leadership. Our world has grown so complex, so interconnected, that we need leaders who can engineer consent and cooperation to make necessary changes that will improve our communities, nation, and world.

"Never in our history have there been more massive demographic changes, greater differences in socio-economic well-being, and such alarming environmental and social challenges," says John Parr, past president of the National Civic League. "And never before has there been such a lack of confidence in the abilities of our leaders and institutions to address these challenges."

However, effective leadership is going on all the time in our communities at the grass-roots level.

So what's missing overall? I believe it is the identification and explicit training of future leaders. It is time for colleges and universities to formally prepare students to be leaders. And it's time for the media to acknowledge that it can be done. Schools prepare accountants, doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, historians, poets, journalists, scientists, mathematicians, and novelists.

But, by and large, they leave the study and practice of leadership to chance.

Of course, higher education has always presumed to educate tomorrow's leaders. But in the first half of the 20th century, only a small percentage of Americans attended college and they were often - by virtue of birthright - already destined for leadership roles in society. Thus it was an easy claim to make.

It is not so easy today. A far larger cohort of citizens attend college than was the case a half-century ago. How many of them will become effective leaders? Not enough, I fear, although the potential is there.

Until 80 years ago, only isolated scholars gave much attention to the characteristics of effective leaders and the process of leadership. More recently, leadership has become a subject for serious scholarship.

Since World War II, thousands of studies and books have been published about leadership processes. From this body of knowledge, and from some older sources, has grown the awareness that leadership can be taught.

In other words, the question of whether leaders are born or made has been answered. …

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