How can society better ensure that leaders and innovators are there when we need them?
James E. Smith, PhD
Leadership is too often overlooked by the very societal systems that rely on it. Every social and organizational level depends on leaders and their direct and indirect efforts, to provide progress, success, even survival. History books worldwide are filled with stories of strong-willed, compulsive, focused, charismatic, and occasionally troubled but ultimately successful visionaries who became the needed leaders and innovators for a given era.
The search for, and development of, leaders and innovators should be a mandate, devoid of random chance or choice.
Any leader or innovator must confront unique social, economic and environmental factors. Many also face adversity, financial crises and physical woes, while dealing with serious social and interpersonal issues. Often viewed as scoundrels, these dreamers with questionable sanity were risk takers willing to put themselves, and often their family and friends, in financial jeopardy.
However, this common set of traits must often be combined with a “fire in the belly,” an inability to resist solving a need or undefined, ambiguous problem that to them is obvious – coupled with the compulsion to lead us in a better direction, despite objections from many quarters. We often don’t know what is best for us until we can view it through a rear-view mirror.
Fortunately, leadership is not limited to just those few who made the history books, or The History Channel. We find evidence of leadership attributes all around us. In any social environment, leaders organize us, direct us, and provide the needed lubrication to counter the inevitable social friction of just being around each other.
As a society, we have either been enormously lucky in finding these invaluable individuals who come to our rescue, or there is a natural order to things that effectively requires or ensures that an innovator or leader rises to meet the challenge when serious problems become evident.
The general contention is that nearly all of us have a latent leadership potential that is often unrealized, but can inspire or compel us to take the lead and solve problems of the day when a true need arises.
It might also be interesting to consider leadership and innovation as an impulse that is triggered by need that is perceived or otherwise, by a crisis, or possibly just by an inner urge, like an itch that needs to be scratched. Indeed, leadership and innovation surface continuously in any number of situations. Apart from a crisis-based need, many awakenings are people or situation-dependent, with little or no way to predict their arrivals.
This leadership potential is not to be confused with everyone’s desire to be the master of his or her own destiny. The designation of master or boss holds its own criteria, which often involves a change of perceived stature or authority within management hierarchy. Whereas the boss manages prescribed, daily activities, the leader finds a way to solve the bigger problem, by questioning, altering or eliminating perceived best practices.
The distinction appears within a leader’s direct sphere of influence. There is most likely a segment of the population, as history is apt to show us, that has the visionary attributes not only to solve today’s problems, but also to anticipate the growing issues of tomorrow.
The “sky is falling” reaction rarely works. Thus, it is the behind-the-scenes proactive leadership that keeps the sky blue and in its proper orientation. Leaders also tend to keep a cool head when Chicken Little is running around, often because they not only see the actual problem, but also because they have the confidence and experience to realize they can solve it, should they have the opportunity.
You don’t have to be a world-class player to be a great coach, but you do need to have mastered the fundamentals of the game.
The magnitude of problems varies, along with according consequences. Yet, the solution must arrive in a timely fashion. In most instances, the problems and respective solutions were generational in nature. Each had time to incubate, a period to learn and train the problem solvers, followed by the opportunity to implement the solution. This process likely took at least one or more generational cycles to implement.
The populace was also afforded a comfortable interval to accept the change or solution, which is required to avoid negative reaction and push back. This proves vital when the required changes were perceived to be too radical, affecting too many comfort-based life style changes, or possibly affecting the vested interests of the status quo.
It should be noted that, in previous generations, the general public handled the cultural, economic and technological changes better than was expected or anticipated by the then-contemporary thought leaders. Consider for instance the social and economic changes that occurred due to scientific and engineering technology advancements during the century from 1850 to 1950. The landscape of that period changed continuously and dramatically, but no one sailed off the edge of the world.
Without a leadership presence within, how can we expect to lead others to needed changes in our future?
Technology has provided a means to improve social and personal security, while also providing the potential for greater longevity and personal satisfaction. As the world’s population continues to grow, mankind will become increasingly reliant on advanced technologies to maintain and increase the expectations of better-informed and equipped world populations. At some point, the only solutions to managing the needs of society will come from technological advances and breakthroughs.
Enhanced, visionary leadership is critical if we are to progress and stay ahead of the problems created simply by taking up space on this planet. Meeting these growing needs and expectations will happen only if we recognize that change is a fundamental requirement for any progressive, forward-moving system, and change will not be obvious to people who are immersed in survival mode or the current solution-set of the day. The individuals who are best able to identify and mentor these essential individuals are themselves leaders and innovators.
An accelerating and growing population exerts social and environmental pressures that shorten the problem-to-solution cycle. Patiently waiting for the next great visionary leader and innovator means we are already seriously behind the solution curve, which increases both the social and environmental pressures that will have to be contended with later.
We cannot go back to a simpler time. The future demands progress. Reaching our shared destiny requires tough decisions by leadership and major disruptions to our shared life style. We must not only find and embrace those few leaders who will rise to the top naturally.
We also need to stimulate, train and reward all who recognize a need and want to brave the normal slings and arrows that result when a person takes the road less travelled.
Given the time and nature of problems this globe will face, at least some individuals will develop their leadership skills in answer to those needs. With the growing nature of the complexity and number of these problems, a more pro-active approach to fostering and encouraging the development of these leaders and innovators will hopefully become mandatory. At every educational level, including all levels of our educational and training process, we must allow and help students develop their leadership skills.
Most likely it will take today’s recognizable leadership to mentor the next generation. From there, the newest leaders will need to provide the same service to the next, hopefully larger group, until the rewards reaped by these individuals become so obvious and ingrained that the educational system adapts to the survival method of leadership and innovation. What will it take to get the current system to acknowledge and foster the solutions to this need?
James E. Smith, PhD is director and a professor of the Center for Industrial Research Applications in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department of West Virginia University