"Leading Thoughts"

Leadership Formation

We are in a period of radical change; a time of unimaginable progress and wondrous innovation, of possibilities and opportunities. It is also a time inhabited by the fears, anxieties, chaos and conflict that normally accompany change. So much of what we thought we “knew for certain” is in question. We are in the grip of seismic changes; changes that are shaking up our familiar assumptions and making us question what we are doing and what impact we are having in the world. It is a period that should propel us into a period of deep reflection about the purpose, development and the practice of leadership.  

The exhilarating promises of technology and increasing globalization are converging in interesting ways - we can be connected within seconds to anyone anywhere in the world. Yet, instant communication seems to have bred instant expectation and an addiction to quick results. The consequences are an emerging culture of immediacy and impatience, a loss of privacy, and superficiality in relationships. In a time when technologies and corporations cross borders effortlessly, the most skilled and insightful, who are already positioned to thrive in the world can slip the bonds of national allegiance and, by so doing, disengage themselves from the less fortunate.  Global interdependence has provided more opportunities for collaboration and cooperation while simultaneously increasing the risks of miscommunication, conflict, systemic economic fragility and widening economic disparity. 

At a time of such extraordinary change, we are finding that many of the world’s critical issues cannot be solved by technology alone. Psychologist, Jeffery Conklin  and psychiatrist and leadership scholar, Ron Heifetz  have respectively characterized these issues as “wicked” and “adaptive” problems. The challenges leaders face are so complex that traditional approaches no longer work.

What does this mean for the canons of leadership development?

First, it means we must continue the thoughtful and thorough study of the field of leadership, support great teaching, engage in cross disciplinary research, and define and recognize best practices. But in order for the field to remain relevant in a rapidly changing world the challenge is the full integration of these. We need practice–based researchers, research-based practitioners, and competent educators who are able to creatively and skillfully combine research, theory and practice as the foundation for responsible action in the world. 

It means we need to shift our leadership work to include the development of the self of the leader. Personal development is the cornerstone of leadership development. A leader’s core identity, personal mission and vocation, and sense of place in and relationship to the world become critical to their autobiography of leadership and reveals character, calling, integrity, and authenticity. 

Leadership programs across the globe, whether in communities, corporations or universities, will need to provide programs of self examination and formation during which the whole of leaders’ lives; their beliefs and values, perceptions of themselves and others, and their understanding of a larger context and world, are equally valued content in the canons of leadership. Edwin Friedman writes about the serious impact the self of a leader can have in the world in A Failure of Nerve. He writes; “The problems confronting leadership in our society today, the failure of nerve and the desire for a quick fix, are not the result of an overly strong self, but of weak or no self.”…” On the broadest scale, the preservation of self in its leaders is a society’s greatest protection against descending into a counter-evolutionary mode. It is only the emergence of self in its leadership that can enable any society, family, institutions, or nation to evolve out of a regression.”

Leaders do have a special responsibility to tackle the most challenging global problems in an almost incomparable time in history. They share responsibility for the evolution of society and for the creation and recreation of the institutions that make life possible, and for creating and recreating the fundamental leadership practices that will form and shape the character of individuals, communities, and of societies as a whole. To assume this responsibility, those who research, teach, and practice leadership will need an integrated approach, one that values and understands self development as leadership development. This change can produce leaders capable of tackling the toughest challenges and of leading effectively in an in-between time and on behalf of “a time they will never see and for people they will never know.”  

Leadership Formation, Article for ILA-NY Times


Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital, Journal of Democracy, Volume 6, Number 1, January 1995.

Robert Reich, Secession of the Successful, New York Times, January 20, 1991.

Robert B. Reich; "The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st-Century Capitalism," Addison Wesley, January 20, 1991.

Warren Bennis, essay, “The Four Traits of Leadership”, 1989.

Edwin Friedman; A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, Church Publishing, New York, 2007.

Katherine Tyler Scott, Preparing Leaders and Nurturing Trustees©, 1997

Jeff Conklin, Ph.D., Wicked Problems and Social Complexity, Wiley, October 2005

Ron Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers, Harvard University Press, July 22, 1998.