When I first started in the learning world over 35 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 and in Education Vice-Chancellors and Heads. 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. Brian the Head of Geography was now a leader. Mike, senior manager in accounts, was now a dog of war.
Using the word 'Leader' creates a sense of us and them, a sort of feudal relationship. Leaders are now the aristocracy in an organisation, everyone else is a kulak, 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 within an educational institution. In fact, it is the exact opposite of most qualities you need to manage an organisation or school. 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. We need to connect with people not lead and follow.
When the language changed, so did the training. HR bods and teacher trainers 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 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.
Standford Professor Pfeffer’s book Leadership is BS should be required reading for all Leadership trainers and consultants. He puts the blame for all the hubris around Leaders and Leadership firmly in the world of training, a confusion of nostrums, stories, fictions, anecdotes, promises, glib simplicities, bromides, romanticism, myth-making feel-good nonsense, His solution – realism. The real world is much more complex and messy than the Leadership theorists and trainers would have you believe. The reality of most Leadership training is that it peddles inspiration rather than real competence. Worse still, those that value a quieter approach, with some modesty and humility, are seen as not having the right qualities. Competence gets bowled away by confidence.
At the theoretical level, the idea that there is a body of knowledge and practice called ‘Leadership’ is laughable. It’s the word that launched a thousand bad books. Middle managers and senior teaching staff went crazy for books they’d never dreamt of reading. I’ve seen everything from Meditations by Marcus Aurelius to Clausewitz 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 Art of War’ by Sun Tzu. What next? Hitler, Stalin… How to reset your company to Year Zero byPol Pot?
What we find is an astonishing lack of evidence and valuation. Leadership has the characteristics of a cult or creed rather than competences. It is what gave us Trump and the Art of the Deal. Witness the greed that enveloped Vice Chancellors, when they were awash with cash from student fees. This hasn’t gone away.
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. I well remember the managers at RBS getting ‘Leadership’ training and turning into the monsters they became, mis-selling, stupid strategies on acquisitions, losing touch with reality, and a huge vacuum in competences. These ‘leaders’ adopted delusional strategies based on over-confidence and a lack of reality. There’s a measurable 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', in business and education,and the rest. Leadership has led to rising inequalities.
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. In finance, for example, 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. In education we saw Vice Chancellors and their sidekicks, on so-called Remuneration Committees, balloon up senior salaries. Let’s get real and go back to realistic learning and realistic titles. The Academy system has seen obscene salaries and an increase in corruption, all in the new 'Leadership' class. In politics (Trump. May, Boris, Corbyn), finance (most of them), sport (FIFA), entertainment (Weinstein et al) and education (Vice Chancellors, Academies), we have fetishised leaders and there has been a disastrous loss of faith, as the greed, corruption, self-aggrandisement and narcissism went through the roof. Time to call it out.