Why the Best Leaders Aren’t in Business – and what could be done about it

Let’s face it, many of the best leaders aren’t in business. Perhaps it’s even fair to say that there are few effective leaders in business – I work in the business world and see some great ones, but if I’m honest they are rare. Those with the most heart, guts and brains are usually seen elsewhere (for example, how many TED talks have come from inside Fortune 500 companies?  The odd Branson or Jobs but they are the exceptions that sneak though). While I think few will want to admit this, secretly many know there is a drought of truly innovative leadership in the business world. So why is this the case? With potential financial remuneration so high for those at the top of private sector organisations why is it that there seem few good leaders? Here are three speculative reasons why the best leaders aren’t in business and what could be done about it:

1.    Values Development and Generation “Y would I want to work for you?”

When I went to the business-led jobs fair at my university I left in tears within an hour as it was clear to me that those present in no way represented my values. Many of my friends simply turned their noses up in anger and disgust at the event and a few set-up an “alternative jobs fair” which mostly represented the third sector. Since graduation ten years ago most of the brightest minds I know have either become self-employed (many setting up social enterprises) or have gone to work for NGOs. My generation and those younger than me do not which to waste their lives working for corporate whores with no ethics and the values of a rapist sharks. We’re weird that way.

From the perspective of values development (see Spiral Dynamics – link) business usually represent a modernist consumerist value-set that ceased to be  leading-edge about 50 years ago. Most well developed university leavers are graduating from this developmental perspective around the time they enter the workplace so there is a major mismatch here, and only less personally developed students will be drawn to business.


Business must incorporate multiple bottom-lines, a “conscious” approach and move it’s own value-set along through authentic CSR to attract the best and brightest young people.

2.    Business Rejects the Body, Wellbeing and Emotions

Most businesses actively repress and deny several core elements of our humanity. These elements – namely embodiment, health and wellbeing, and emotional intelligence – are also the foundations of effective leadership. A great leader’s actions are built on their health and they inspire others through their physical presence and emotional impact. If business is selecting against these things, or discouraging them in the workplace, this is a major problem for leadership.


Institute a full program of emotional and embodied intelligence training across organisations  – but of course I’d say this I’m biased 🙂

3.    Business Selects Conformists

Many of those who are hailed as truly innovative business leaders like Richard Branson or Steve Jobs started their own business and would have been selected-out of the running for leadership positions in established corporations. We live in times of change where innovation is key and yet the majority of private sector organisations still reward conservatism and conformity. In many workplaces you have to be dull to get by and get promoted, so it is no wonder there are few leaders in such quagmires. Leadership requires vision, courage and stepping outside the ordinary.


Reward mavericks, innovators and unconventional behavior internally in organisations. Select for these characteristics rather than high IQ or good college grades in selection of young management development candidates.

I’d love to see business get the leadership it needs to succeed and do good in the world. I think it’s time it attracted the best and bright best again, and that is very possible. What do you think?

If you are interested to read more see the following:

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