“The history of mankind might be described by a cynic as a series of splendid expeditions towards the wrong goal or towards no goal at all, led by men who have all the gifts of leadership except a sense of direction, and every endowment for achieving their ends except a knowledge of ends worth achieving”
These words by Sir Richard Livingstone  (1880 – 1960) still resonate today. His focus was education, which is where he spent his life (Oxford and Queen’s in Belfast), but this paragraph should be kept as one of these perennial quotes and pieces on leadership.
The ‘splendid expeditions towards the wrong goal or towards no goal at all’, reminds us that not everything that looks like an expedition may be worth it. We may make leadership complex and even well-orchestrated but this needs also ‘a sense of direction’. It seems so trivial to simply state this. I particularly like ‘sense of direction’ as opposed to a fixed destination. The second part of the statement talks about ‘ends worth achieving’. Again, leadership may look like an expedition towards ends, but the little qualification’, ‘worth achieving’ hits the nail on the head.
I have treasured this piece for many years and still it comes back to my mind again and again. I use it with my clients within leadership work, individual or collective, as a piece for reflection, even digestion of all of its parts.
The long quote continues with a second part on education:
“We must not forget in our education this element, a sense of direction. We do forget it, if we are content that our schools should merely impart knowledge, develop and discipline the intelligence, train character in the narrow sense. They must also be places where the mind is enriched by the right visions and where the ends of life are learned.”
Education systems in the Western world are struggling. ‘Places where the mind is enriched’ is still a goal that is not well achieved. Perhaps leadership starts in school. Perhaps this is why true leadership is still not well entrenched in many people in organizations. However, it’s true to say as well, that many people are genuine in its quest, sometimes intuitive, sometimes guided. In the true sense of Livingstone’s view of the world, I regard leadership development as ‘education’. In the etymological sense of the word: to get, from inside, that which is already there in the person.
I guess many of us, you and me, are in some kind of splendid leadership expedition. Worth checking for the right maps.