Like Nature, Leadership Abhors a Vacuum

Effective leadership cannot exist in a vacuum, and it must encompass commitment to the mission, organization and individuals on the team.

In physics, ‘horror vacui, or plenism’ commonly stated as “nature abhors a vacuum”, is a postulate often attributed to Aristotle, who articulated a belief that nature contains no vacuums because the denser surrounding material would immediately fill any void. Boy that’s a mouthful, and in the very same way, potential voids in business or organizational leadership structures will either be filled with some variation on leadership, or something other than leadership. It is when something other than leadership occupies these voids that the foundation of businesses and organizations begin to fracture and fail.

The United States Marine Corps defines leadership as “The sum of those qualities of intellect, human understanding and moral character that enables a person to inspire and control a group of people successfully”. 

I really like this definition. Leadership is all about moving people successfully, and in this, using intellect, character, and human understanding to get your people to complete a task or mission. Leadership is all about driving and assuring success, no matter the organization or environment.

To compare what we do in our organization every day to what that Gunnery Sergeant is facing in combat might seem a stretch, but as he successfully leads his fellow marines against a determined enemy bent on his destruction, I am wondering why we of the civilian world have such difficulty in getting our people to do the things we want them to do. Why is he able to get his people to willingly face death and wounding every day, while we have difficulty in getting our people to show up for work on time or be consistently productive? 

Acknowledging that there are issues of training, peer pressure and esprit de corps, leadership is what allows all of us to rise in any situation and do something above and beyond what we would have any reason to expect. Leadership can make all of us better. Of course, the unfortunate other side of that is that a lack of leadership can drive down efficiency, drive down productivity and literally drive us out of business.

Another important point about effective leadership is that it can’t be invisible. It can be subtle, it can be understated, it can be restrained, faint or even inconspicuous, but to be effective it must be seen. If your people can’t see who is leading them, how could you reasonably expect that they would follow? If they can’t or won’t follow you, that’s not leadership.

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu characterized leadership as a mix of five traits: Intelligence, Credibility, Humaneness, Courage, and Discipline.

John C. Maxwell (The Art of Leadership) said, “Leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less.”

According to Jim Collins (Good to Great), “Leadership is the building of motivation through individuals in aid of reaching a certain set of objectives.”

Martin Luther King Jr. described leadership as “a process in which an individual has the ability to influence a group of individuals in achieving a common goal.”

As I am writing this, I am winding down toward my retirement after 15+ years in the Federal Government as a Change Management Specialist with the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda Maryland, and a 25+ year career in and around the automotive repair industry. 

Before I go much further, I would say that this is not the bitter axe grinding of an angry or hostile soon to be ex-employee; I am in fact a very happy, very fulfilled, soon to be ex-Federal employee, who is proud of his many years of service, both military and civilian, looking forward to spoiling my grandkids and whatever it is that comes next. 

I would also say that I have had the honor and privilege of working with some of the smartest, most talented, dedicated, and motivated folks you could ever hope to come across. There is no doubt that I was a lesser version of a public servant, but like that proverbial blind pig, I managed to find the occasional acorn. 

As I was winding down toward retirement, I had great visions of keeping my nose to the figurative grindstone but had the double whammy of my director unexpectedly deserting me and my team without the slightest thought or consideration, followed immediately by the appointment of a less than capable or willing leader in her place who was decidedly set up to fail. This changed any plans I had toward working my way toward retirement or any hope toward dignity as I made my way toward the door.

I don’t know which was worse; the abandonment of the team by our director, a world class betrayal in and of itself, or the appointment of someone whose clear preference from the outset was to avoid actual leadership, engagement, or interaction with other team members. Either way, the team was set adrift, leaderless and without direction. 

Today, where a few months ago there was a high performing team, there is a disconnected group of individuals who mostly don’t talk, don’t trust and do their own thing. Not much of a team these days, but betrayal, abandonment and a lack of leadership will do that, no matter how good and accomplished the team. 

True leadership demands a total commitment to the mission, to the organization and to the individuals that make up the team. It is not about you, as an individual. 

There is a saying that Gunnery Sergeant we had mentioned that you would likely be familiar with, “No Marine left behind”. When you avoid leadership and all that it demands of you, you are no longer a leader. When you abandon and betray your team for something better for yourself, it is no longer leadership. And, so we are clear, leadership and ambition are not mutually exclusive, it is just as important that as you look out for yourself, you also look out for those in your charge. Like it or not, they depend on you to have their back.

As a leader, your two main concerns are the mission or task and your people.

Semper fidelis (always faithful), the Marine Corps motto, is a two-way street.

Those co-workers I spoke of earlier are deserving of leadership equal to their intelligence, talent, dedication, and motivation. They are likewise deserving of your fidelity.

About the Author

Brian Canning recently retired from the National Institutes of Health (DHHS) as a Change Management Specialist in addition to 30 years in the automotive repair industry with many senior leadership positions. He has been a business consultant and leadership coach and has over 70 articles published, mostly on leadership and business process.