Monday, July 28, 2014

Leadership: the weasel word that led to bad management

We have fetishised the word 'Leader'. You're a leader, I'm a leader, we're all leaders now - rendering the word completely meaningless. What do you do for a living? I’m a ‘leader’. Cue laughter and ridicule. Have you ever heard anyone in an organisation say, “We need to ask out ‘Leader’?” - only if it was sneering sarcasm. The bottom line is that no one in the real word uses the word. It's a bureaucratic construct used only in courses and organisational charts. No person in their right mind would call themselves a leader to someone's face. Describe yourself as my 'Leader' and I'd dismiss you as someone lacking the skills to manage me. In fact, introduce yourself to me as my leader and I'd think you were the opposite.What HR has missed, is that in the real world it's a pejorative term. We need to be far more critical of this terminology and the 'leadership' craze. If you teach this stuff, what exactly have you 'led'? What evidence do you have for the things you are calling 'leadership?  It was invented by people who sell management training to fool us all into thinking that it's a noble calling. It’s all a bit phoney, exaggerated but a more worrying proposition is that it may also lead to dysfunctional behaviour? 
Weasel words
When I first started in the learning world over 30 years ago ‘Leader’ was not a word I heard at all. 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 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 was plucked from the shelves of the sweet shop that is faddish HR theory – ‘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.
Leadership platitudes
The first problem was was the flood of platitudes that accompanied the word 'leadership'. Leadership is , , noun
>..... that's the problem right there. Lacking any depth of analysis or solid theory, HR and Learning & Development re-badged any old management theory courses they had lying around into 'Leadership' courses. As long as you knew what the the acronym SWOT meant, you were a leader. To get an idea of how superficial this has become, check out any Twitterchat on Leadership and marvel at the shallowness of the debate. Leadership is, apparently, any old cliche.
Using the word 'Leader' creates a sense of us and them. Leaders are 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. 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. If you want to avoid this problem, simply don’t use the word ‘leader’.
Leadership courses
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, allowing them to add a few bucks onto their daily rate.
Middle managers went crazy for books they’d never dreamt of reading. I’ve seen everything from Meditations by Marcus Aurelius to Lao 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’ – 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.

We have seen leaders in every area of human endeavour succumb to the tyranny of ‘leadership’, in business, politics, newspapers, sport, even the police. 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.

1 comment:

John Rogers - Learning in Practice said...

I agree. It is an obsession that is unhelpful and unrealistic.

Henry Mintzberg published a polemic on leadership in the FT 2006 -(Mintzberg, H. (2006) Community-ship is the answer. Business Education Supplement, Financial Times 23rd October 2006), an extract of which is as follows:

Isn’t it time to think of our organisations as communities of cooperation, and in so doing put leadership in its place: not gone, but alongside other important social processes.

What should be gone is this magic bullet of the individual as the solution to the world’s problems. We are the solution to the world’s problems, you and me, all of us, working in concert. This obsession with leadership is the cause of many of the world’s problems.

And with this, let us get rid of the cult of leadership, striking at least one blow at our increasing obsession with individuality. Not to create a new cult around distributed leadership, but to recognize that the very use of the word leadership tilts thinking toward the individual and away from the community. We don’t only need better leadership, we also need less leadership.