By Dr. Ben Gilad, ACI Faculty

‘You can lead a horse to the water but you can’t make it drink’ goes the famous saying. This famous saying needs to be slightly modified when discussing the state of leadership thought today: you can lead a horse to the water, but if there is no water there, you and the horse are in trouble.

Leadership is about getting people to follow your vision. Great leaders unify, excite, and show a brighter future for those who follow them. Just think back to the 2008 victory by Obama: Hope and Change swept fifty two percent of the voters off their feet.

Then came the reality.

The problem with leadership thought is that is dedicates itself to developing and assisting leaders but it never stops to ask: Where are you going, oh great leader? The field of leadership research takes it for granted that the leaders’ vision is based on reality and maybe a sixth sense of where things are going.

That is a grave mistake.

The reason leaders fail, and leadership thought fails with them is that it is wholly focused on the internal world of the leader and his employees. Leadership literature talks about transformation and change, innovation and customer centricity, Big Data and mentoring, listening and empowering, and not one word on the simple reality that competitors are doing everything in their power to derail the leader.

It is as if leadership happens in a bubble of coaching and assessing and measuring and self-actualization. The notion of “putting the customer first” can easily be interpreted as the insular idea that your competitors put the customer last. The outside world is only peripherally there in leadership thought, behaving perfectly as the leader intends in his or her grand vision. There is never a mention of luck, there are no surprises, and nothing is outside the control of the fearsome leader.

Leadership thought needs to wake up. Regardless of leaders’ inner values or personality or management style, the first and most important value of a leader to his or her organization is in competing effectively against opponents. In the military, there are enemies. In business, companies have no enemies but have competitors and other alternatives available to customers. No company is an island, and no strategy is done in a vacuum.

In order to compete effectively, the leader must possess skills that have little to do with her ability to motivate her workers. She must understand fully the behaviors of those who are not under her control. It is called external focus and it is the least understood and least focused on attribute of in the field of leadership studies and advice.

It’s time to put the horse before the cart, not the reverse. Leaders must have superior external focus and external focus is comprised of highly effective intelligence gathering skills, highly realistic assessment of opportunities and a powerful insight into strategic risks. In short, leadership is first and foremost knowing where to go.

Take the Mongols, for example. The greatest warriors of all time, rulers of the largest empire, lost their first battle in today’s Israel (near Eyn Harod) when the Egyptian army under the Mamluk Sultan Qutuz, had superior knowledge of the terrain and surprised them with a bait-and-surround strategy, new powder explosives and alliance with the Christian crusaders in Arce. Ever confident of their tactics and discipline, the powerful Mongols never recovered from that loss.

When leaders lose sight of the role of luck, surprises and the simple reality of unplanned developments in the external world they are on their first step to failure. When they assume they know more than they do, they are on their second step. When they focus solely on their own world, their own people and their own visions, they are in the zone of wishful thinking.

You want to lead? Make sure you are superiorly prepared for what’s coming your way.