Read any headline of the news around the world and you’ll be confronted by a multitude of challenges to humanity and its progress. Famine, war, bigotry, crime, inequality, misuse of resources, and disease are problems that continue to vex people around the world. They present very real barriers to a fulfilled existence for much of the globe. These issues have faced mankind for all of its existence. One would hope that as we progress through the modern age, we could alleviate or even abolish some of these challenges. Alas, in the foreseeable future, this will probably not occur. This unlikelihood is not as a result of a failure of will, but rather as a failure of something far more subtle. The biggest barrier to the advancement of peoples around the world is a lack of effective leadership. Look where nations have some of the direst needs and you will find an absence of good leaders. Even in seemingly “first world” nations, national progress is often radically impeded by inefficient leadership.

The concept leadership is a vague and amorphous idea. To paraphrase Justice Potter Steward, ‘I may not know how to define it, but I know it when I see it.’ We seem to recognize great leaders, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, even if we can’t exactly pinpoint what makes them great. Is it an ability to plan for the future, or inspire great acts, or is it being able to bring out the best in others?  Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we can be.”

The fame and power that often accompanies leadership can be a potent temptation. This is one reason that so many countries suffer from a lack of good leadership. Political leaders often use their standing for personal or political gain. Rather than envisage the future of their country, they image their own retention of power or influence. In the Roman legend of Cincinnatus, a Roman aristocrat and former leader (Cincinnatus) who was in retirement, was called upon to lead the legions in a time of dire need. He was given absolute powers in an effort to save the Republic. He led his armies, defeated their enemies and promptly relinquished his tremendous authority to return to his quiet retirement. He did this even at a time when former leaders were often seen as potential opponents. His story is an ideal of selfless leadership.

A leader needs to have a clear idea of what they want to do. The ability to see what is needed is one thing  that defines greatness in a leader. The former President of the University of Notre Dame, Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, has said, “The very essence of leadership is that you have to have a vision. It’s got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.”

Being an effective leader is certainly not motivated by the need for fame or recognition. The best leaders will lead out of a desire to serve or an interest in improvement. Lao Tzu says, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

Whether you are a politician, parent, teacher, businessperson, or friend, you have a heavy responsibility to lead others.  I would go so far as to say that the most pressing need in the world today is for great leadership. Thoughtful, selfless, visionary leadership  can reach into the future and take us all there as well. Many (if not most) of the world’s major problems could disappear under the cloak of great leadership.  As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” Indeed.