Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

Globally, confidence in leadership has all but disappeared in recent years. Technology may be partly to blame, but our crumbling faith in leadership may say more about how we’ve changed than how our leaders have.

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We are presently facing a global crisis in leadership — at least according to a survey of experts convened by the World Economic Forum in 2014, that is. Fully 86 percent of the 1200 individuals surveyed by the forum responded that the global crisis in leadership posed a “serious challenge to prospects for tackling the world’s most pressing and dire challenges.” Across the board, from religious institutions to government, media, and business, faith in leadership has crumbled over the past 15 years.

As the subjective experience of leadership has abated, however, the demand for it has done anything but. “People value leadership, good leadership, more than ever before,” Sheena Iyengar asserts. “But they also feel it’s less likely to be found. So the question becomes, why do people feel that leadership is less likely to be found today?”

For Iyengar, part of the answer may be that leading today is simply more challenging than it once was. Globalization has opened business up to unprecedented levels of competition, stoking demand for effective leadership and revealing its absence. At the same time, the rise of information and communications technology has created vast troves of information, but far less insight. The spread of technology has also changed the way in which information flows, from the strict hierarchy of the organizational chart to loose informal networks based on “chance encounters, who sits where, who likes whom,” she says.

According to Iyengar though, far more importantly, the present “crisis” in leadership may be a reflection not of our leaders, but of our changing ideas of ourselves. “The big change that’s happening right now is that we are reconceptualizing what it takes to perform and to succeed,” she explains. Critical to that, for Iyengar, is the way in which the traditional coordinates of identity — family, place, career — have each become temporary or contingent. “We live in a world now where many more things can be attached and removed from us, and we’re supposed to be comfortable with that,” she says. “Organizations, birthplace, jobs, these no longer make us who we are.”

“We are currently in a world where each of us is searching to find our authentic self. Entrepreneurship and leadership are no longer about the content of those activities. They are about that search.”

Severed from the grand historical projects that gave group identities their purpose, Iyengar argues, “we each come to see ourselves as the hero of our own story.” As she sees it, that individuation not only poses a critical challenge to leadership, it underlies many of the trends in contemporary society, from selfbranding to the excitement around entrepreneurship to the types of business leaders celebrated today. “Steve Jobs isn’t an icon for the amount of money he created for himself,” she points out. “Bill Gates made more money, has been more of a leader, has done more for humanity, but still people would rather be Jobs. Why? Because of the personal brand he built, a brand that was just as important, maybe more so, than his products.”

For those who seek to lead today, then, the challenge is not merely to develop and articulate a vision, but to tie together the vast and diverse individual narratives of those they seek to lead. “We are currently in a world where each of us is searching to find our authentic self,” Iyengar explains. “Entrepreneurship and leadership are no longer about the content of those activities. They are about that search.”

About the researcher

Sheena Iyengar

Sheena S. Iyengar is the inaugural S.T. Lee Professor of Business in the Management Division at Columbia Business School, and...

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