No one but us

No one but us

“No one wants to be a leader any more,” a friend of mine recently observed.  “Everyone wants to be in the second row of leadership and is keeping a critical eye on those in the first row.”

No one but us. There certainly seems to be hesitancy.  With poetic words, Annie Dillard observes that we are “a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead-as if innocence had ever been-and our children busy and troubled, and we ourselves unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, failed, yielded to impulse and tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and involved.”  We may ask, who then can take up the leadership role?  She reminds us, “there is no one but us.”1

What can we do?  If it is up to us, then what can we do about the current situation?  How can we make sure that there are capable and ethical persons willing to step up to leadership roles?  The answer is not simple.  A quick review of leadership literature will reveal a plethora of suggestions.  However, one theme emerges–the need to be more intentional about leadership development.  Let me suggest three opportunities: a) the identification and encouragement of leadership potential in those around us, b) a re-examination of our concepts and expectations about leaders, and c) the development of educational opportunities and support systems for leaders.

A pipeline of new leaders.  A widely held assumption works against us in pursuing our first opportunity, that of encouraging leadership potential.  We tend to accept that there is a pipeline of new leaders.  Just as oil in a pipeline replaces the oil withdrawn, new leaders will fill the places as they become vacant.  But what if the pipeline is broken, or restricted, or even diverting the important flow in another direction?  Without intentionality, it is not safe to assume that the leadership pipeline will be filled.  Early identification and encouragement is essential in filling the leadership gaps.

Concepts and expectations.  In addressing our second opportunity we must realize how our mental models help us or blind us in developing new leaders.  All of us have developed mental models about leadership–what leaders look like, how they act, how they respond, etc.  Because they are our mental models we tend to accept them without question as the norm and reject others who have different models.  But leadership is larger than our experience, and we must remember that the current or future situation may require new or different responses.  John Arango explains that our mental models “will cause us to see what we have always seen: the same needs, the same opportunities, the same results.  And because we see what our mental models permit us to see, we do what our mental models permit us to do.”2  For us as leaders and as observers of other leaders, it is imperative that we re-examine our concepts of leadership and our expectations of leaders.

Improving leadership effectiveness.  The third opportunity is in improving and extending the effectiveness of leaders.  Intentionality includes thinking about leadership, reflecting on its purposes and goals, developing a vocabulary to articulate visions and ideas.  It means improving skills such as good communication and effective management.  It means making appropriate and ethical decisions.  We must therefore examine the questions of leadership, increase the dialogue about good leadership, develop effective leadership teams or support groups, and work to create a climate of support for leadership that will extend its effectiveness.

This is our challenge.  It’s ours because there is no one but us.  How will you respond?


David S Penner, PhD.  Loma Linda University

1Annie Dillard (1988).  Holy the Firm (New York: Harper & Row), pp 56-57.
2John B Arango (1998). Helping Non-Profits Become More Effective. (Algodones, NM: Algodones Associates Inc.), p 2.