Old Wine in New Bottles


cuneiform Tablet

Leadership has been an important part of human behaviour since man first evolved as a social animal. In early times, leadership within a family unit or social group was a requirement for survival.  One of the oldest clay tablets found – the world’s earliest writing – was an inscription in cuneiform writing of a Sumerian proverb: Soldiers without a leader are like sheep without a shepherd. 

And today the writings, videos, songs, plays and movies about leadership, good and bad,

John F Kennedy Profiles in Courage

John F Kennedy Profiles in Courage

are so ubiquitous that a Google search of the single word, Leadership, turns up 740 million hits. And nearly every business magazine publishes a Top 10 or Top 100 list of best leaders, best companies for leadership, best leadership quotes. And awards are given annually for leadership by most industries. When I was young Senator John F. Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, Profiles in Courage, about great leadership among US patriots through history.

And a quick stop at any airport bookstore reveals several shelves of leadership books. Here are just a few current titles:

  • The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership,
  • Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan
  • Mindful Leadership: The 9 Ways to Self-awareness, Transforming Yourself, and Inspiring Others
  • Mountaincraft and Leadership
  • Effective Strategic Leadership
  • Emotionally Intelligent Leadership
  • Leaders Eat Last
  • The Three Levels of Leadership
  • Quiet Leadership
  • How Great Leaders Think

If you read all the leadership books you wouldn’t have time to lead!

After looking at all these hundreds and hundreds of book titles about leadership, I am left with a nagging question – are they really all different? Or is it the same material and concepts with just different titles? Old wine in new bottles?

And if there is nothing new about leadership principles and we have all read the books, then:

  • Why are many business leaders failing their employees and customers?
  • Why are many political leaders failing their constituents?
  • Why are many nations still locked into conflicts reminiscent of the Middle Ages?

Is there some new leadership lessons we are missing? Or could it be something else?

Yes, Yes, I Know All That Leadership Stuff, But . . . 

It is no use saying, ‘We are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.  ~Winston Churchill

I recently read a report titled Thinking the Unthinkable, based on research by Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon and sponsored by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA).

“Well, I regret to inform you that I largely agree with the views put forward in the paper… I do recognise all the symptoms you describe. But there are a number of them which worry me particularly” General Knud Bartels, Chairman NATO Military Committee, 2011-15

The Thinking the Unthinkable report highlights the usual growing rate of change and seemingly unprecedented global events happening more and more frequently that seem to be taking business and political leaders by surprise.

But now the report gets interesting, since they ask the obvious question: Why don’t leaders at the top see these events coming?

You can imagine the amount of resources available to captains of industry and heads of state for information gathering, trend spotting, massive intelligence gathering, teams of researchers and strategists.  So with all these capabilities, why have more and more business, government and political leaders been caught flat-footed?

No one saw 911 coming? No one saw the Russian invasion of the Crimea? No one saw the rise of ISIS? No one saw the Arab Spring? No one saw the economic house of cards called Brazil and Russia? No one saw the economic slowdown of China? No one saw the stagnation and gridlock of American politics? No one saw the rise of Donald Trump?

Maybe it’s not faulty information, but a faulty receiver? What is it about people at the very top in key leadership positions who have been successful on the climb up for decades that they suddenly become blind?

Is something missing from our radar? Or is the isolation, the fear of failure, the concern about loss of power so great that once invincible and decisive leaders become timid and protective of the status quo?

I will leave you to think about these issues, because the “disease at the top” might infect us all at some point, either personally or as collateral damage.

I might have some insights into how to control this “leadership disease” in future blog postings.

Meanwhile, a nice glass of wine is in order!

Written and Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

e: john@johnrchildress.com
Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,  Business Books Website

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

John also writes thriller novels!



About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
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