The European leadership crisis
Is the current leadership crisis anouncing a shift in paradigm?

The recent European search for a Union president has surely been very revealing.  The heads of states of the EU have faced the fact that they have finally agreed to a constitution that stipulates a new position is to be filled: that of Union president. They also reached a consensus that this president should definitely not be a charismatic leader who would want to push significant agendas.  Indeed, the preferred search was out for a low profile and humble person who would not make waves.  The Belgian Herman Van Rompuy has thus become the first European Union president. 

To be sure, each country would have been flattered to have one of their nationals named as the first European president.  Nationalisms die very hard. But each country was just as sure that it did not want another country’s national to assume that position and certainly not if the person was to demonstrate real leadership.  We can conclude that the European Union clearly didn’t want a real leader to be named into its presidency.  For once we all agreed.

This situation has provoked an avalanche of sarcastic analysis from political observers, numerous humoristic observations from journalists, and just as many cynical comments the world over.  The subject is also what is motivating this text.  In a question form, the object of this article is “what can the recent process to designate the first EU president reveal about the real expectations Europeans have from their leadership?

Leadership crisis

Also note that the expression of leadership crisis is rather common in everyday conversations.  It is generally used to give an easy explanation to the troubled social, political and economic times we are living. Poor leadership can indeed provide us with a quick and simple explanation for our day-to-day difficulties and low hopes for the near future.
When we hear this expression, however, we can wonder to what level of reality the words “leadership crisis” apply and how they should be understood. 

  • Do we understand that there is a crisis concerning our leaders, who they are, what they decide, how they behave?
  • Or do we understand that we are going through a crisis that questions our frame of reference about the very concept of leadership?

Concerning the first dimension, numerous media analysts, trainers, consultants and other specialists are extensively covering the field.  All the world leaders are daily being scrutinized, analyzed, categorized and judged.   Probably more than ever in past history, all our leader’s speeches, behaviors, beliefs and habits are constantly dissected, criticized and publicized. 

But what if our whole frame of reference about the concept of leadership had changed?   What if our leaders were chosen to assume a position and play a role that was no longer perceived as useful in our current society?  What if we were electing people into positions and offices that no longer correspond to a real social and political need?  What if we were all slowly and subtly evolving to the point of no longer needing leaders? 

Today, we may just be naming leaders into offices because the offices are there.  But our current world may be working in such a way that real leaders are no longer necessary or useful.

An international perspective

Taking that hypothesis to an international level, let us consider the following:  Twenty years ago, a few countries played key leadership roles on the international scene.  The US and the Soviet Union were polarized in a competitive east-west relationship that structured world politics.  In Europe, the same could be said, with two partners, Germany and France on one side facing the UK on the other.   The three pretended to lead Europe’s destiny and define its construction.

These times were easy.  We knew who were our leaders, we had role models and clearly defined enemies, we could choose sides and follow footsteps.  Worldwide, most countries were aligned with their chosen leaders while a few others were choosing to remain non-aligned.  Paradoxically, some countries were trying to be the leaders of the non-aligned.  Those were the good old days.

Interestingly, we could also perceive the same type of dynamics in numerous sub-systems worldwide.  Within countries, political parties, public organizations, private companies and teams, leaders fought, won or lost and did what they could to lead.  All others watched, followed, or chose to remain unaligned. Everyone knew whom to consider as a potential leader, whom to follow and whom to ignore.

Today, things are much more confusing.  Either there are no more true leaders or many more candidates have the potential to hold the position.  But if at any given time, everyone is a potential leader, then no one can really lead.  Internationally, today’s leading countries are not so clearly positioned.  Some of our old champions such as the US and Russia may still have residual power, but numerous new players are rapidly accessing to equal or stronger positions. 

Times have also changed on the European scene.  Try as they may, the past partnerships between key players can no longer structure today’s progress.  Germany and France have their own separate agendas. Separately or together, they no longer have the credibility to play a leading role.  Next to them, a host of newer members are actively reconfiguring continental equilibrium.  Although these new players cannot be leaders, they can keep any other country from legitimately holding the position.  Hence the current situation, with a non-choice of a non-president.

It seems that worldwide, the very possibility of a country holding a strong leadership role is no longer a desirable option.  Although many countries would love to assume the role of leader and are still endlessly maneuvering to appear to be leading nations, it is just not happening.  The real change in our society of nations is that the position of leadership can no longer be held by any one country, nor by any one coalition.

Some statistics from Western Europe

Let us approach the issue from the angle of training in Europe.  Consider a few figures from the Observatoire Cegos who has interviewed 2355 employees and 485 H.R.s and training managers from organizations that have more than 500 employees in Western Europe.  This study took place in France, Germany, the UK and Spain over a 3-year period from 2005 to 2008.  According to this study, 72% of the French employees had received professional training, against 52% of the British, 29% of the Germans and 24% of the Spanish. 

For some, the difference from one country to another may be quite a surprise. The fact that the British are not first in Europe may be an eye opener for many who have a Anglo-Saxon bias and approach to training and coaching.  Indeed, one could imagine that if a country trained their personnel 40% more than another, that country's training tradition may be rather developed, and worth attention.  If French organizations train their employees so much more than English, German and Spanish companies, what is can their experience teach others? What are their results?  How do French programs and ways of delivering training compare to other countries? What is similar and what do they do differently?  Just out of interest, what are some differences in training content and strategies that specifically apply to Latin cultures? What companies extensively call on French consultants and trainers, and what results do they achieve? 

Other numbers: According to the study quoted above, a particularity of the French training market is that only 6% of the personnel had followed leadership training programs, against an average of 15% for the other countries in Western Europe, and 25% in the UK.   This is a huge difference.  France implements 40% more training than the UK, but the UK is sending four times more personnel to leadership training than France.  In fact, 50% of UK training focus is on leadership, and less than 10% in France.

There can be many interpretations to explain this difference.  One concerns the obvious US cultural influence on the British market.  The US and UK focus on leadership may not be so trendy in France.  But then, the UK also sends many more employees to leadership training than any other European country in the study.  Are there so many people that need leadership training there?  There could also be more people that need to be flattered by being sent to a leadership development program. Or is there more of a need to develop leaders, whereas France and the rest of Europe already has them?  Of course, there are many other questions to be asked.

Excess focus on leadership

Another explanation to these statistics concerns a possible difference in the continental European Community culture which is just outside the field of Anglo Saxon perception  Continental Europeans may be more concerned with communication, negotiation, peer collaboration, cooperation, mediation, conflict resolution, etc. rather than with leadership.  The European issue may be how to work together between peers, how to give and take, get along, etc.  These are very different issues from just focusing on leadership, having a vison statement, a mission statement, and the lot.  We should also remember that leaders absolutely need followers, and that these may need to know how to work together, in a less individualist way.  Now who is training them?  

To be sure, so much focus on the individual leader may just not be so European or continental. Focus on teamwork may be much more so.  Incidentally, note that publishers in France also avoid to have the word leadership on book titles.  The word and concept just don't sell.  On the other hand, leadership books really sell in Anglo-Saxon contexts.

Acknowledging this state of affairs can help us understand the emergence of a new political paradigm on the international scene, and can provide a few insights as to the evolution of leadership in our society as a whole.  Several questions emerge as to the direction in which we are going or growing.

  • Can this current international and European state of affairs be an advance indicator of the disappearance of the very concept of leadership in all levels of society? 
  • If the leadership is no longer a structuring role internationally, within nations, organizations and teams, what will replace it, or what has already started to replace it?  

The Continental European Model

As an emerging international network of nations, the European Union countries have been struggling with the validation of a formal constitution. Although numerous countries have had difficulty ratifying this constitution for very different reasons, its future effect is very clear.  This new European constitution will permanently serve to ensure that no one, two, three or more member countries will ever have the possibility of exerting a permanent leadership role in the future union.

There will be no future legitimacy in having specific nations assume statutory leadership positions.  From now on, France, Germany, England, the Benelux and other big “founding members” will have to consider every other newer member country as an equal partner.  That may be hard to accept for a lot of the older countries, but that is the new reality.  Lets face it: Europe wants to be a network, a number of project-oriented teams, a loosely-woven confederation of partners, anything but a formal system headed by a strong leader.
In effect, the present European constitution has ratified the largest formal international leaderless network system ever experimented. 

Indeed, it is obvious that the current European Union doesn’t need any one state or pair of countries to act as leaders.  The Union doesn’t need any one country president or leader to try to lead the Union, much the contrary.  The message to each state leader is stay out of European leadership. If you want to act as a leader, stay within your country, (and see if you can succeed there).  

Within the Union, different leadership positions are conceived within such a quick rotational system that we are ensuring that officials will not have the time to push significant personal agendas.  To have a chance of being elected for most European posts, candidates better be humble, transparent, diplomatic, consensual and patient.

If this state of affairs concerning leadership in Europe is a perceptible truth, then we need to start considering some of the consequences.  Should such a change towards leaderless systems be taking place on the European level, there will surely be numerous effects on all other levels of European reality.  We may already be in a transitional process that questions the very necessity of strong, visible and charismatic leadership on all levels of our society and in all our social and economic systems. 

The need for leadership in Countries, companies, administrations, teams, communities, cities and provinces may in fact be in the process of being completely questioned.  This may explain why all over Europe, people perceive a leadership crisis.  We are simultaneously looking for direction through visible leadership and ready to do away with the very need for leaders as a structuring role to achieve collective ambitions.

Enter leaderless networks

Unfortunately, for numerous people, the very concept of working or living in a leaderless collective system is still impossible to imagine.  For those people, working or living within an efficient and effective peer network or federation without any one member taking over a permanent leadership role is practically inconceivable.  Leaderless systems are the equivalent to chaos.

In some organizations, however, temporary network teams or project teams have been designed to achieve a given goal and then dissolve into the background.  These temporary flat and reactive teams are often difficult to understand by traditionalists, but they work. The reporting systems of network teams are often complex and their decision-making circuits difficult to explain, but they achieve results.  A close look at network teams most often reveals that they do not have strong leaders.  In fact, that is what makes them effective.  In general, humble and diplomatic temporary pilots represent many of these project-oriented systems.

Interestingly, network systems and project teams often do manage to achieve objectives in a way that more classical systems cannot.  Network systems have the reputation of being much swifter, lighter, more effective and more collaborative than most formal systems in leadership-ridden organizations.  These networks are generally designed to work across the very boundaries erected by territorial and competitive leaders.  Project teams are flat systems that are built on the principle of goal-oriented cooperation and collaboration.

If leadership driven systems are on the wane, are flatter project-oriented systems on the rise?  Is this the new paradigm that is slowly being created while we focus on annulling all our potential leaders’ capacity to lead?  This may be a slow and natural evolutionary process that is so close to our eyes that we do not perceive it.
Coaching as a model for non-leadership

Interestingly, in the past fifteen years, coaching as a profession has spread the world over, proposing a new model for relationships in the consulting arena. Much in the same way as some project management pilots, coaches question, reformulate, accompany and facilitate dialogue to allow the emergence of new solutions.  They do not push their solutions or agendas on their clients, they do not take the lead on client ambitions or goals, nor do they drive for client results.  Avoiding all knowledge-based expertise, power-based or contractual leadership, coaching rests on the principle of sharing responsibility to progress in concert, within a respectful peer relationship.

Interestingly, the non-leader coaching posture and corresponding coaching communication tools interest numerous managers who are in search for a new paradigm to accompany teams and organizations to success.  This new manager-coach is searching for ways to create learning environments that allow for all employees to take responsibilities and initiatives, grow and succeed together.  This collaborative approach spills out and affects a new type of relationship between teams, with suppliers and clients, and with the larger environment.  In Europe, with the gradual disappearance of the old leadership model, it seems that more community-building and collaborative attitudes, strategies and tools may be on the rise.