A leadership vacuum- an oxymoron

In a 2015 “Survey on the Global Agenda” undertaken by the World Economic Forum, 86% of respondents agreed that we have a leadership crisis in the world today. On further investigation, those interviewed, referenced their leaders’ failure to address global issues, and noted that global leadership was tainted by dishonesty and corruption.

Lack of leadership was identified as one of the top three trends impacting the world today (along with deepening income inequality, and jobless growth). We would argue that the other trends; rising geostrategic competition, a weakening of representative democracy, rising pollution in the developing world, intensifying nationalism, the growing importance of health in the economy are also underpinned by the need for strong, effective leadership. Leaders will also need to negotiate the complexity of the increasing occurrence of severe weather events and resource-constrained water stress. The world needs effective leaders and effective leadership. A leadership vacuum is not sustainable.

If we take “leadership” to mean “one or more people who influence one or more followers to achieve specific objectives”, then it would seem contradictory to place this idea in conjunction with the notion of a “vacuum"- “a void, a place in which there is not matter, where the particles do not affect the processes and an environment where humans lose consciousness and die of hypoxia.”

But that is precisely the point. When leaders are not able to demonstrate self-leadership; when they fall at the bar of character, when they do not follow through on their commitments, they lose the right to lead others. Consequently, the initiatives they were leading do not realise their objectives. The “particles” (the leader) no longer affect the “processes”. It has been said that “nothing happens in a vacuum of leadership.” If only that statement was true. I would argue, “everything you don’t want to happen, happens in a leadership vacuum.”

In a leadership vacuum, the system breaks down. In a leadership vacuum, followers become disgruntled, frustrated and disheartened. In a leadership vacuum, trust is (irrevocably) eroded.

By all accounts, we are living through a leadership vacuum. Trust has reached an all time low. The 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer showed how for South Africans, a lack of trust is central to our thinking. Only 16 percent of the general public trusts the government to do what is right. This is compared with 42 % of the general public globally.

The notion of “horror vacui” or “nature abhors a vacuum" was attributed to Aristotle. Whilst he was referring to the natural world, he may well have been referring to the world of leadership. Although other scientists were to go on to prove him wrong, (we now know that vacuums are actually evident throughout the universe), time and time again we see the same pattern amongst leaders.

Lack of accountability, lack of follow-through, blame-shifting and overpromising and under delivery are all characteristics of a leadership vacuum. In a leadership vacuum, if the leader does not affect the processes, the processes affect the followers- resulting in greater volatility, uncertainty, and ambiguity.

Have we as followers lost consciousness? Have we become numb to the inaction of our leaders? Have they become impervious to the needs of their followers? Have we become “heady” with living “well below normal pressure”?

Now, more than ever, we need leaders to emerge who will take responsibility for ensuring that these two ideas of “leadership” and a “vacuum” don’t belong together. Here’s to the notion of a “leadership vacuum” moving to the realm of an oxymoron.



Edelman Trust Barometer 2015: www.edelman.com/insights/…/2015-edelman-trust-barometer

Survey on the Global Agenda 2015 reports.weforum.org/outlook-global-agenda-20…

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