• Megan Penhoet

Leaders We Trust


Covid-19 highlights America's need for leadership investments

Maria Callas, one of the 20th century's greatest sopranos, was said to have practiced ten hours a day, devouring music, and training in the "bel canto" technique- a kind of vocal "straight jacket" - extremely difficult work. Her years of training and natural talent made her one of the most famous singers of her time - when the curtain rose, the audience trusted her Aida. Niel Armstrong, the first astronaut to alight on the moon, fought in the Korean war, became a test pilot, joined the NASA Astronaut Corps and after seven years of training, made his famous "one giant leap for mankind" moon landing. The world over, viewers were in awe of the event and trusted Armstrong's long military and space training to be sufficient to the task, incredible as it was. Both Callas and Armstrong had spent years in rigorous training and were elite experts in their fields having been vetted multiple times in their careers.

In the United States we have no Astronaut Corps or "bel canto" training technique for our leaders. Instead, we loosely make assumptions about what happens at name-brand colleges and universities, and about the various ways that accumulating money stands as proxy for leadership development. But these paths don't compare to the kind of intensely focused and refined training that other disciplines such as medicine, Olympic athletics, concert musicians or astronauts compete to experience. Why are we willing to settle for less than world-class training when it comes to some of society's most important roles?

Covid-19 has revealed that complex enterprises matter and that leadership is connected to preparation. Moreover, we are experiencing how extremely difficult it is to make up for lost ground in a crisis. It would have been better if we had been stockpiling medical equipment as Finland did. More than that though, this crisis underscores the need for a stockpile of well-trained leaders. Covid-19 has also given us opportunity to deeply consider and re-imagine a future in which leaders are well prepared for crises of such proportions.

Political aspirants implicitly ask us a most serious question: "Do you believe me to have the credibility to do something I have never done before?" It's a live performance- like Maria Callas - and it's using all the tools, training and experience one has to face the unknown- like Neil Armstrong. With what we can see coming down the road, don't we want a large number of extraordinarily well-prepared leaders from a variety of backgrounds at the ready?

This may or may not be a good time for "Space Corps". Back here on planet earth, and particularly in the United States, we need new investments in leadership talent development. Isn't it folly to imagine a better future without seriously attending to this deficit in our national life? Leadership training should be a priority - it's crucial. And if the "how" is a challenge - remember so was Verdi for Ms. Callas and getting to the moon for Mr. Armstrong.

Society is always hungry for well-trained leaders whose backgrounds inspire confidence. There are hundreds of leadership development initiatives in the U.S. - in corporate America, philanthropy, and in government. There is also a gap in the formative stages right after college that can make existing initiatives so much more impactful by better preparing promising leaders entering the existing pipelines. We have some good models to look to that focus on this post college stage. Leaders are emerging from existing enterprises like the Truman Scholarship - graduate fellowships to exemplary college graduates in the U.S., the Rhodes Scholarship - education for high achieving leaders/scholars at Oxford, and soon the Nordic Scholars Leadership Institute - training high achieving U.S. leaders/scholars in the Nordics.

Leadership should not be left to chance. A purpose-driven, evidence based leadership training and education program as rigorous and purposeful as medical school or astronaut training can prepare promising leaders. They in turn will help society adapt to better face future challenges like climate change, disruptive technologies, and yes, pandemics. Just look to the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals- 17 in all. We have a big job ahead of us. The rainbow-colored SDG circle pins popular on the lapels of today's leaders represent the 17 goals and 169 targets - it is a circle with an empty middle. But that center is a bullseye- it represents leadership. Americans must focus on the target, aim true and train tomorrow's leaders. Leaders can make out-sized contributions to society- that's the ROI.

The adage "Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail" has never rung more true. Leaders matter a great deal and in the U.S. we are too comfortable leaving their development to chance. Perhaps in our polarized news cycles we confuse preparation with programming and abstain from taking action. The responsible, prudent next step for Americans is to create and invest in leadership development. Our children and grandchildren deserve our focused attention on preparing for the obvious challenges of our time and the less obvious challenges we cannot yet see.

Tomorrow's leaders must cross-train, operate at the level of systems, have practiced failing, re-calibrating and succeeding. They must have undergone personal development, faced and questioned their belief systems, changed their minds and the minds of others. Their leadership capabilities will go hand in hand with their personal development, understanding their limitations and how they can grow through them or find ways to manage around them. They must have endured hardship, been humbled by nature, earned the respect of a team and learned to seek counsel on topics outside their expertise, increasing resilience through their work.

America enjoys a vast array of riches- materially, intellectually and yes, in character. We can be more intentional and purposeful - and more expansive in who we support as leaders. If we can train and trust Neil Armstrong to land on the moon and admire and enjoy opera singers and Olympic athletes we can certainly train and educate America's transformational leaders. Leaders ask us to trust them to do things they have never done before. Let's invest in creating a leadership pipeline worthy of our trust.

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