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The world needs exemplary leaders

The world needs exemplary leaders

Demographic shifts are creating demand for exemplary leadership that exceeds supply

There’s a leadership shortage in the world. It’s not a shortage of potential talent. The people are out there. The eagerness is out there. The resources are out there. The capability is out there.

The shortage is a result of three primary factors: demographic shifts, insufficient training and experiences, and the prevailing mindsets that discourage people from learning to lead.

Currently 25% of the global workforce comprises millennials (those born between 1981 and 1997) and in some countries that number approaches 50%. (There are differing opinions on the exact years when the millennial generation begins and ends. We use the range from the Pew Research Center.) By 2025 estimates are that millennials will comprise 75% of the global workforce. Even with their numbers in the workplace growing daily, organisations around the world still do not feel that they have an ample leadership pipeline to meet present and future needs. The demographic shifts are simply creating demand for exemplary leadership that exceeds supply.

If the need for leadership development is great, then why is the pipeline nearly empty? Part of the answer comes from research conducted by leadership scholar Jack Zenger. He looked at his worldwide database of people participating in leadership training and found that their average age was 42. However, the average age of supervisors in the database was 33. “It follows then,” Jack reports, “that if they’re not entering leadership training programmes until they’re 42, they are getting no leadership training at all as supervisors. And they’re operating with the company untrained, on average, for over a decade.” Wow!

Let us ask you something: Would you seek medical treatment from an untrained physician? Would you allow an untrained accountant to audit your company’s books? Or, would you hire an untrained engineer to design a new self-driving car? Of course you wouldn’t. So, why is this permitted with leaders?

"According to recent studies, more than 50% of young people
want to become leaders in their organisations"

Here’s another sobering fact to add to this shortage of leadership and inadequate preparation. There has been a global decline in the level of trust that people have in their leaders. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer - a highly respected annual study of trust in major institutions and their leaders - “the number of countries with trusted institutions has fallen to an all-time low among the informed public. Among the general population, the trust deficit is even more pronounced, with nearly two-thirds of countries falling into the distruster category.” Around the world people trust their leaders less and less - no wonder there is a leadership crisis.


For all the talk about the importance of leadership development and the need for better leaders, organisations - including governments and schools - have been putting little of their money where their mouths are. They haven’t been doing what they say is vitally important. This is a sombre global concern. At the same time, it is a huge opportunity for those organisations and individuals who choose to take the initiative.

The leadership mindset
In seminars we’ve been asking participants this question: How many of you think of yourself as a leader? In a group of 50 people, typically only six raise their hands. Even though these are usually people who have come together for leadership development, only about 10% identify themselves as leaders. Perhaps people are being modest and they think that if they say they’re leaders they’ll appear arrogant and boastful. Maybe. But we think there’s more to it than that. A mythology about leadership persists that makes people reluctant to claim leadership for themselves. It’s as if leadership starts with a capital L and is reserved only for those with some special talent, birthright, gene, calling, position or title. This perspective creates an invisible barrier and is a limiting belief that stops many from answering the call.

Debi Coleman is one of the first leaders we ever interviewed about personal-best leadership practices and the first leader we quoted in the very first edition of our book The Leadership Challenge. At that time Debi was vice president of worldwide manufacturing for Apple Computers. In our interview she explained: “I think good people deserve good leadership. The people I manage deserve the best leadership in the world.” Debi is now managing partner of SmartForest Ventures, a venture capital firm, and serves on numerous boards. When we caught up with her again, we learned that her perspective on leadership is the same today as when we first talked with her more than 30 years ago.

Debi expresses the spirit of all exemplary leaders. They strive mightily to deliver the best leadership in the world because they firmly believe that people deserve it. Most likely that’s exactly what you want from your leaders. If you believe that the people you now lead, or will lead in the future, deserve the best leadership in the world and if it’s clear that there’s a growing need for an increased quantity and quality of leaders, then it is imperative that you become the best leader you can be. Step one is to develop a leadership mindset. You don’t have to wait for an organisation to offer a programme for you to become the best. Nor do you have to wait for someone else to give you permission or provide some special resource. Just as Dorothy and her colleagues in The Wizard of Oz discovered, you already have everything you need to become an exemplary leader.

Learning to become an exemplary leader
After more than 30 years of research, we know that you are fully capable of leading. You may not realise it or fully believe it, but it’s true. You can learn to be a better leader than you are today if you believe in yourself, aspire to be great, challenge yourself to grow, engage the support of others and practice deliberately.

According to recent studies, more than 50% of young people want to become leaders in their organisations, although they don’t necessarily view organisations in a traditional way. We know that they also seek challenging assignments and are willing to work hard but that their greatest fear is that there’s a ‘lack of professional growth opportunity’ in too many of their organisations. Their willingness to stick around may well be contingent upon how well leadership developers and managers respond to this need.

If you are serious about becoming a better leader, and willing to put in the time and effort, then don’t forget to take care of yourself. Pace yourself. You can’t build muscle strength all at once; rest between exercises is necessary. Similarly, every suggestion you have for yourself, or others, will not be spot-on the first time. There will be setbacks.Make sure you build an internal, possibly even external, support system that can get you through the inescapable missteps and disappointments along the leadership journey. You may lose some battles, but keep your eye on the bigger picture.

This is an edited extract from Learning Leadership: The Five Fundamentals of Becoming an Exemplary Leader by James M Kouzes and Barry Z Posner (published by Wiley)

James M Kouzes is the Dean’s Executive Fellow of Leadership, Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University, and Barry Z Posner is Accolti Endowed Professor of Leadership and former Dean (1997-2009) of the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University