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Putting leadership in its place

In this series we’ve attempted to make the case for why managers should abandon the essentially irrelevant (to say the least) concept of individual leadership.

As we’ve discussed, whatever version you choose of the modern leadership movement’s (MLM) teachings, you will find that it is essentially meaningless without stressing the singular, exceptional status of the leader. This in turn necessitates according him or her dedicated and, certainly, submissive “followership” which is intended to give expression to the unique leadership capabilities that have been stipulated to exist in the person of the leader. That distinctly disturbing notion, as we’ve seen, actually applies all around this mysteriously sacrosanct personage – to juniors, peers, and even seniors.

So, there really is no way to award the status of “leader,” as defined by the MLM, without also assigning to that leader some extraordinary degree of imperviousness to, even outright disconnection from, accountability.

But the business world is slowly beginning to realize that this hasn’t been working out especially well. For decades organizational life – commercial, government, not-for-profit – has been plagued with erratic performance by stupendously self-serving executives. They take credit for externally beneficial influences; evade blame for their own egregious mistakes; confuse and befuddle their organizations, vendors, and customers; damage the property of their shareholders and sometimes even the wider community’s confidence in the necessary underpinnings of commerce. Even when they manage to avoid – or evade – any obvious trouble, many of these “leaders,” having sincerely (albeit naively) bought in to the hype about themselves, also suffer personally from the impossible expectations this role places in them.

And that’s not all. Various of those swept up into the rigidly policed orbits of “followership” have found that they cannot long abide being rendered so ineffective and inconsequential in a culture where their submission to the leadership cult (being “team players”) is more valued than their ability to contribute. Directors as well are increasingly taken to task for allowing themselves to be suborned into being the spokespersons for rather than the supervisors of their CEOs. Famously, shareholders are revolting.

Slowly but surely, the struggle over power and privilege – legal, practical, and moral – in organizations is reigniting and new voices are surfacing. While the jargon is difficult to jettison, the depiction of the role of “leaders” is beginning to more properly reflect the tasks of managers directing and supporting the work of motivated, skilled, creative employees and collaborators. Directors are being held, via one device or another, to their duty to do due diligence in both the selection and the exercise of close supervision of their CEOs. Shareholders are finding and flocking to various investment mechanisms that hope to ensure that the divination and pursuit of their interests remain paramount.

The heretofore free ride for irresponsible rhetoric about leadership in organizations is beginning to attract long overdue skepticism. And, as noted, it is not just the particular concept of the “leader” that is being called in to question, but also the broader leadership construct built upon that by the MLM. The edifice is under assault from several quarters.

And, although it is indeed long overdue, it is most welcome and can only promise some good. We will, for now, leave the evolving debate to its own devices.

Here, it’s well past time as well to begin a closer examination of how we might take up our genuine burdens, to assume our real-world responsibilities – to put leadership in its place and to set ourselves to our actual work.

That will be up for discussion presently. See you soon!

Amateur Hour

In the course of this current series, we have seen that the general concept of individual leadership in organizations suffers from a debilitatingly long list of failures. It lacks system, it defies definition, it is unable to develop practitioners or to predict outcomes . . .

But never mind: perhaps it is really too dispiriting, even for critics like us, to recount them yet again.

At bottom what is most telling about them isn’t their number, but their nature. And that is the greatest failing of all: leadership is inherently unprofessional.

As Peter Drucker argued, with the rise of the world of organizations in the 20th century, management was compelled to transform itself from an ad-hoc activity conducted by persons of random ability and preparation into a profession. Its practioners can be readily identified both theoretically and practically. It is based on objectively developed function, its execution is based on widely recognized practices and disciplines, and it is grounded in accountability and responsibility.

The concept of leadership is, plainly speaking, none of those things. You can visit any number of major organizations or business schools around the world, ask them about their management philosophy, and recognize the universal character of most of what you learn. Making the same tour with questions about their leadership philosophy will only leave you scratching your head in wonderment at the random, ad-hoc nature of the responses you receive.

And it will compel you to conclude, as we do here, that there is neither a professional “field” of leadership, nor can those pretending to be practitioners of it genuinely lay claim to being professionals in any meaningful sense. In other words, the pressure to adopt the “modern” concept of individual leadership promoted over the last several decades is actually a step back in time to pre-modern amateurism; basically the anti-definition of professionalism.

Surely that’s not how you would like to see yourself, or to have others see you, is it? If not, be sure to stay with us here, as we wrap up this series next week with a discussion of where leadership really belongs.

We will then move on to a new series dedicated to penetrating through all the background noise generated by the chaotic claims about leadership to find the real signal that will help guide our professional actions in this field.

See you next week!

Losing leadership

Let’s review. Here’s the original list of issues we decided to examine at the beginning of this series. Each link will take you to the post (or first of several posts) addressing that item.

  • It is inescapably about the person – not the work. It encourages personal ties which rise to the level of cultishness. It describes these ties as existing between the “leader” & his or her “followers” – not among colleagues and their businesses or organizations.
  • It suggests that individual leadership can be developed. There is, however, no proof whatever for this contention.
  • It fails to connect leadership (especially inspirational or charismatic) with successful business management.
  • It is filled with fallacious proofs consisting of examples that seem to support it, but which ignore the multiples of examples that satisfy the posited parameters but that fail to support it, or that even contradict it.
  • Neither its presence nor its potential can be predicted.
  • It encourages adults to attempt to develop personality characteristics that may not be natural to them. This has not been demonstrated as possible; it may actually be harmful.
  • It further encourages adults to focus on developing these personal characteristics in order to attain a personally aggrandizing persona, rather than to improve their ability to contribute as part of a team to organizational work.
  • By seeking a universal individual leadership model it fails to see how individuals in “leadership” positions learn on their own to evaluate what’s working, what isn’t, and how to adapt to keep things going or to improve them.
  • It is irretrievably run through with contradictions – the most obvious being those among the widely touted and disparate lists of “essential” leadership traits.
  • It (often actively) encourages unaccountability by its recourse to superlative leadership skills and “intuition” beyond the ken of the rest of us.
  • It is, consequently, irrelevant, distracting, and thus destructive on numerous levels.

The concept of individual leadership has not weathered the examination well. And that leads to one more thing about it that cannot be avoided – we will discuss that briefly next, before summing up and then moving on to our next discussion subject.

Losing track of leadership

The concept of individual leadership and its role in organizations, as promoted by the Modern Leadership Movement (MLM), is, as we have seen, anything from a merely distracting to an outright destructive force. But there is a particularly disturbing feature of it that has a worrying tendency to drive it toward the latter result.

The individual leadership movement as it has been promoted for the last several decades has as a central feature the unaccountability of the leader.

Of course, it is never expressed that way. But it is an inevitable and essential result of the very concept of individual leadership of organizations, however that is promoted in whatever corner of the MLM.

Whatever aspect of leadership one or another sub-school of this movement propounds, it necessarily insists that the “leader” has it to a degree that is beyond the ken of the rest of us, and that we thus must resign ourselves (gleefully, of course, with the glassy-eyed enthusiasm of the true “follower) to this leader.

Be what it may – intelligence or integrity, vision or passion, focus or foresight – its proponents must argue that it is of vital import and that it is only possessed and can only be comprehended by the leader; it is the duty of the rest of us to do our dim-witted best to help the leader give expression to it.

It’s important to bear in mind that there is really little or no limit to this idea, neither in its direction nor its reach. It is not merely in “theoretical” explications that it can run to truly bizarre extremes – in practice it can be and too-often is allowed to run rampant for far too long. And why not? After all, it is not only employees who are expected to follow the leader, but directors on the board, the role of which – far from directing and supervising – is simply to use high-level business connections to facilitate the leader’s wishes.

Moreover, the nature of this “followership,” whether from above or below, is simply to “give expression to the musings of the leader” as one major figure in the MLM has none-too-delicately put the matter. To many, this extends even to redesigning the organization around the personality and leadership style of the leader.

The genuineness and seriousness of these problems have been dealt with previously in this series and elsewhere on these pages. What bears emphasis here is what they inevitably add up to: unaccountability.

By its very nature, then, the idea of the individual leader inescapably carries with it the notion that the very capabilities that make him or her a leader

  1. are essentially inaccessible and incomprehensible to the rest of us, and
  2. must nevertheless – indeed, for that very reason – be given full rein to be effective.

If we bear in mind that this abject followership applies both to juniors and directors, then we must acknowledge that the argument is being made by the MLM that we are not only to surrender our wills and our reason to this personage – but to do so on little more than faith. Moreover, we are expected to strive to give expression to the leader’s dictates simply because they emanate from him or her. Indeed, the possibility that we may not understand or agree with them is not even, precisely speaking, irrelevant – rather, that incomprehension is to be taken as direct evidence of the unapproachable preeminence of his or her leadership.

It is worth recalling, after such a remarkable set of assertions, that they are made by actual adults in influential positions of authority in academia, business, and the consulting industry. Moreover, they are uncritically subscribed to by many of the rest of us in our various capacities as employees, fellow managers, directors, vendors, customers, competitors – even shareholders.

But the time for accounting is approaching. We’ll see why soon.

Leadership is loco

We have argued extensively that the modern leadership movement-marketed (MLM) concept of individual leadership in organizations is not merely misplaced, but that it in fact is:

  • at best irrelevant
  • more typically disruptively distracting
  • all too frequently an actively destructive force.

Honestly, then, why does this manifestly nonsensical notion continue to thrive so? The fact that it does would suggest that we have all the arguments we’ve developed against it wrong, that we have failed to see what’s really there and how its proponents effectively propound it.

The problem with that possible objection to our position in these pages, though, is that we haven’t, in truth, been able to come face to face with “what’s really there.” Rather, our efforts to do so have revealed that there is nothing really there at all. There is no universally adhered-to MLM argument to refute, no consensus about what individual leadership is, how to identify or develop its practitioners, how to predict its presence or effects.

The irony is at once frustrating and laughable. For several decades now, a topic that has no verifiable basis in fact even for its actual existence has absorbed more assets in publishing, teaching, “research,” and study than almost any other single aspect of organizational management, many of which have what one would think was the advantage of having something that’s “really there.”

Where does all the gas come from which keeps these heaving, blundering leadership balloons afloat? Is it merely the colorful spectacle they present in the otherwise bland sky that attracts us to them? Is it the prospect of the view, beguiling but distant and useless, we might obtain should we ever get a seat in one of those ostentatiously exclusive baskets suspended beneath such self-aggrandizing bombast?

Or is there, perhaps, something even more unpleasant at work, here, something with an influence more malignant than the vacuously breathtaking prospect would suggest? Let’s look at that next week.