Today’s Crisis of Confidence in Leadership

Trust in leadership of all sorts today is less than it was at the height of anti-authoritarian rhetoric in the 1960s. We could easily assume—and people have argued—that this modern lack of confidence in leadership reflects something gone terribly wrong—broad failure on the part of leaders, a loss of moral integrity on the part of those being led, or even an impending collapse of society. Cultural Maturity offers an alternative interpretation. If it is not the major factor now, it will be a major factor in the long term.

The concept of Cultural Maturity describes how our times require-and make possible-an essential “growing up” in how we understand, relate to, and embody authority. This includes authority of every sort, from that exercised in leading nations; to the expertise of teachers, doctors, or ministers; to the authority we apply in making the most intimate of personal life choices. It also describes how we now reside in an awkward in-between time in the realization of such new, more mature leadership. These are not easy circumstances. But they are circumstances that suggest an ultimately more encouraging picture.

It helps to put what we see in historical perspective. As with other culturally shared dynamics, formal leadership has evolved over time. Formal leadership’s evolution has involved not just what leadership looks like, but what makes it leadership at all. Leadership, as we generally think of it, arrived with our Modern Age—with the emergence of individual determination as a rallying cry and with the rise of democratic principles. New leadership assumptions and approaches then directly challenged the more heredity-based and dictatorial/authoritarian leadership practices of earlier times. But while these changes represented important steps forward, a further chapter in how we conceive of and engage leadership will be essential for times ahead. The reasons are similar to those we saw with love’s new realities: We need more Whole-Person/Whole-System kinds of leadership.

The role of projection helps make sense of both what we have known before and what is changing. Mythologized projection has always before been central to the workings of leadership. We’ve projected our power onto leaders. This is most obvious with leaders of times well past such as pharaohs and kings, who were seen, if not as gods, then certainly as god-like. But in a similar if not quite so absolutist way, we have continued to make leaders heroic symbols in modern times. We described John Kennedy using the imagery of Camelot. We depicted Ronald Reagan as a mythic father figure. In a related way, we’ve symbolically elevated not just political leaders, but authorities of all sorts—religious leaders, professors, doctors, and leaders in business. The relationship of leaders and followers has been based on two-halves-make-a-whole systemic dynamics.

Projecting our power onto leaders has served us. As with “chosen people/evil other” projections in relations between social groups, and the romanticized projections of two-halves-make-a-whole intimacy, idealizing authority has protected us from life’s easily overwhelming bigness. It has provided a sense of order in a world that would otherwise be too complex and deeply uncertain to tolerate. But as we have seen with other systemic dynamics, going forward will require more than leadership as we have known it. Leadership as traditionally conceived stops short of a full realization of what it means either to be an individual or to exercise authority. If the concept of Cultural Maturity holds, the future depends on the possibility of leadership that more effectively reflects the whole of who we are.

Do we currently see such Whole-Person/Whole-System changes in how we think about and embody leadership? Given today’s crisis of confidence in leadership, the evidence might seem to strongly suggest otherwise. But this diminishing confidence is also consistent with what we would predict as old forms of leadership give way to more culturally mature possibilities. I think it is not so much that leaders themselves are failing today, than that old forms of leadership are failing. In fact we see changes consistent with the needed, more mature kind of leadership with authority relationships of many sorts. Some of the most important “bridgings” beginning to manifest in our time link the opposite halves of authority-related polarities—teacher and student, doctor and patient, minister and churchgoer, president and populace. They reflect a more mature and systemic leadership picture. Authority relationships of all sorts are becoming more two-way, with more listening and flexibility on the part of leaders and more engaged and empowered roles for those who draw on a leader’s expertise and guidance.

Leadership provides a good illustration of the awkward, transitional place that we so often find ourselves in today when it comes to Cultural Maturity’s changes. We tend to be much better at demanding the gift of culturally mature leadership than at knowing what to do with it. We may want leaders to get off their pedestals, but frequently when they attempt to do so, we respect them less, not more. We want leaders to be more transparent, to reveal more of themselves and to make fewer decisions behind closed doors; however, when they do, our first response is often to attack them for their human frailties. But even this awkward, in-between place is a start. And it is a start toward a kind of change that should more and more define human possibility.

From Hope and the Future: