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Outward Bound: What's Wrong With Leadership Today

Yesterday, Yahoo! announced that it will double maternity leave, and the move is being hailed as ground-breaking.

Call me cynical, but I'll pose a question: do our major leaders need to experience something personally these days before they'll do something about it?

Just last week, Congress decided to ease up on the FAA budget, but is it because our members of Congress are worried about the resulting disruptions to the general public, or is it because they don't want to miss their own scheduled flights? Would Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg give such a hoot about work-life balance if she weren't a working mother herself? Would Sen. Rob Portman turn around and support LGBT rights if his son hadn't come out? Would pundit Peggy Noonan stay at your average airport hotel and use the experience to assess the state of the country?

Then there's Marissa Mayer announcing that Yahoo! will double its maternity leave, offer Yahoo-branded gifts for newborns, and reimburse employees up to $500 for child care, laundry and house-cleaning. These steps are truly wonderful, but I can't help but wonder if these changes would be on Ms. Mayer's radar in the same way if she weren't a new mother herself. Only two years ago she said the following on the topic of working very long hours: "People will say that's not possible, there's only 168 hours in a week. But if you don't go home, you don't shower, you don't eat down in the cafeteria, and you sleep under your desk for, like, two hours a night, then you can work 130-hour weeks. And I've done that."

Hmm. Sleeping for two hours a night underneath a desk doesn't sound like very good work-life balance to me. Now that Ms. Mayer has entered a new phase of life (i.e., parenthood), however, perhaps work-life balance issues are gaining her attention in new ways? If so, that's good. Bring on the corporate-branded baby gifts!

She's not the only leader whose corporate initiatives seem to dovetail with personal experience. Innovative, ground-breaking thought leadership increasingly feels Oprah-ized. When you think about it, the amazing Oprah Winfrey has been very good at creating societal "trends" around whatever she is experiencing personally. From changing our perceptions of self body image to teaching us how to be our more-authentic selves, if Oprah is living it then we will live it, too. Everybody gets a caaaaaaaaarrrrrrr! Cue the remix.

Now if only we could wrap this inwardly-focused leadership mindset around bigger problems such as job creation, health care coverage for all, increased access to mental health care options, additional funding for scientific research, and getting around to repairing our national infrastructure among our many other pressing national issues, then we'd have it made in the shade.

Do our elected leaders really need to see long-term job loss up close and personal in some way before they'll bother to show up for Congressional hearings on the issue? Should we put Oprah on the long-term unemployment issue instead? Everybody gets a good jooooooooooooob! (I would love to see that remix, personally.)

Of course, there are millions of unsung leaders out there who are pursuing quiet, ground-breaking changes every day even if they haven't experienced the issue personally, simply because it's the right thing to do for everyone else. Consider Bill Gates, who is fighting the good fight to eradicate illness around the globe -- and not because he's experienced polio personally or doesn't have access to clean water on Lake Washington. Sure, he's polishing his legacy, but the initiatives he's chosen to pursue, for the most part, do not affect him directly.

In other words, he's making outwardly-focused decisions instead of inwardly-focused decisions.

I know I'm incredibly cynical, or on the flip side far too idealistic, but it would sure be nice to see more prominent leaders do the right thing for their companies, and our country, in ways that don't come off as somehow self-serving or based on where they are in their own lives at the moment. I'd like to see our leaders support ground-breaking change simply because it's the right (and smart!) thing to do, and not because they have a dog in the fight. For now, onward and upward we go. Maybe eventually we can add "outward" to the list as well.

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