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Why Can't Leaders Lead?

CHANGE IS THE METAPHYSICS of our age. Everything is in motion. Everything mechanical has evolved, become better, more efficient, more sophisticated. In this century, auto-mobiles have advanced from the Model T to the BMW, Mercedes, and Rolls Royce. Meanwhile, everything organic – from ourselves to tomatoes – has devolved. We have gone from such giants as Teddy Roosevelt, D.W. Griffith, Eugene Debs, Frank Lloyd Wright, Thomas Edison and Albert Michelson to Yuppies. Like the new tomatoes, we lack flavor and juice and taste. Manufactured goods are far more impressive than the people who make them. We are less good, less efficient, and less sophisticated with each passing decade.
People in charge have imposed change rather than inspiring it. We have had far more bosses than leaders, and so, finally, everyone has decided to be his or her own boss. This has led to the primitive, litigious, adversarial society we now live in. As the newscaster in the movie Network said, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.”
What’s going on is a middle-class revolution. The poor in America have neither the time nor the energy to revolt. They’re just trying to survive in an increasingly hostile world. By the same token, the rich literally reside above the fray – in New York penthouses, Concordes, and sublime ignorance of the world below. The middle class aspires to that same sublime ignorance.
A successful dentist once told me that people become dentists to make a lot of money fast and then go into the restaurant business or real estate, where they will really make money. Young writers and painters are not content to practice their craft and perfect it. Now they want to see and be seen, wheel and deal, and they are as obsessed with the bottom line as are IBM executives. The deal for the publication of a book is far more significant than the book itself, and the cover of People magazine is more coveted than a good review in the New York Times. The only unions making any noise now are middle-class unions. Professors who once professed an interest in teaching are now far more interested in deals – for the book, the TV appearance, the consulting job, the conference in Paris – leaving teaching to assistants.
When everyone is his or her own boss, no one is in charge, and chaos takes over. Leaders are needed to restore order, by which I mean not obedience but progress. It is time for us to control events rather than be controlled by them.

– Warren Bennis

Excerpted from An Invented Life: Reflections on Leadership and Change (Addison-Wesley,1993), chapter 13: “Change: The New Metaphysics.”

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