When I first started in the learning world over 30 years ago ‘Leader’ was not a word I heard - ever. There was plenty of good management theory and training, and most people who headed up companies were called Managing Directors. Then the tech bubble came along in the 90s and we all went gaga for snazzy, new US terms and everyone swapped out the sober and descriptive MD for CEO (Chief Executive Officer) (I’m also guilty here). The word ‘Chief’ is an interesting choice. You were no longer someone who ‘managed’ others but the big chief, big cheese, a big shot. It was then that another word rose like Godzilla from the depths of the cess pit that is HR lingo – ‘leader’. Suddenly, managers weren’t people with competences but top dogs who ‘Led’ people towards victory. Mike, senior manager in accounts, was now a dog of war.
Using the word 'Leader' creates a sense of us and them. Leaders are now the aristocracy in an organisation, everyone else is a working serf or follower. In a sense the word infers that the people you lead and manage are followers. It sets you apart from other people, not a great quality in management. In fact, it's the exact opposite of most qualities you need to manage. Of course, leadership trainers will tell you that it’s not about creating followers, but in practice this is the effect the word creates and management trainers jump through hoops to reconcile this leader/follower dilemma. Another example is the word 'follower' on Twitter. That creates the wrong impression and sometimes behaviour. Like Michael Ritter, I prefer the word 'connection'. If you've come to this blog piece, bear in mind that I regard you as as someone I connect with, not lead or follow. If you want to avoid this problem, simply don’t use the word ‘leader’.
When the language changed, so did the training. HR bods were suddenly the leading thinkers on leadership. HR and training departments saw an opportunity to big-up their status by breeding, not managers, but leaders. Middle managers went on ‘leadership’ courses run by people who had never led anything, except flipchart workshops, in their entire lives. In practice this meant cobbling together stuff from existing management courses and adding a veneer of specious content from books on leadership. Winging it became a new course design methodology and every management trainer in the land suddenly became a leadership trainer.
Middle managers went crazy for books they’d never dreamt of reading. I’ve seen everything from Meditations by Marcus Aurelius to Sun Tzu’s Art of War touted as serious management texts. I knew it had all gone seriously wrong when I saw a commuter, with a bad suit and combination lock briefcase, on the 7.15 from Brighton to London, reading ‘The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan’. What next? Hitler, Stalin… Pol Pot?
Led to the abyss
Managers loved their new found status as little generals, leading the troops. They responded to the training as narcissists respond to flattery, with gusto. I don’t think it’s an accident that this coincided with the megalomaniac behaviour in the banks where ‘leaders’ fed on a high-octane diet of ‘leadership’ training, ‘led’ us into the abyss of financial collapse. These ‘leaders’ adopted delusional strategies based on over-confidence and a lack of reality. There’s a price to pay for believing that you’re destined to ‘lead’ – it's called realism. Managers who now saw themselves as ‘Leaders of the pack’ engaged in behaviours that flowed from the word. They became driven by their own goals and not the goals of the organisation or others. It also led to greater differentials between leader and follower salaries, witness the gross gaps in income between our new 'leaders' and the rest.
ConclusionIt's the language of narcissism and excess. We have seen leaders in every area of human endeavour succumb to the tyranny of ‘leadership’, in business, politics, newspapers, even sport. Rather than focus on competences and sound management, fuelled by greed, they focused on personal rewards and ‘go for broke’ strategies. So what happened to these ’leaders’? Did they lose their own money? No. Did any go to jail? No. Are they still around? Yes. Have we reflected on whether all of that ‘leadership’ malarkey was right? No. Let’s get real and go back to realistic learning and realistic titles.