Sunday, May 29, 2016

Leadership BS - why the leadership industry is a Ponzi scheme

Leadership BS is as good a management book as you’ll ever read. It eschews the usual platitudes for a view of the world as messy and complex. It deals in realism, not idealism. Professor Pfeffer, of Stanford Business School, confirmed much of what I already thought about leadership and management… and much more, but it’s his candour and realism that impresses. As he exposes the nostrums, stories, fictions, anecdotes, promises, glib simplicities, bromides, romanticism, myth-making feel-good nonsense that passes for Leadership training, he also offers a solution – realism. He replaces normative wishes with evidence and the realities of the workplace. That’s pretty refreshing.

The Leadership industry has failed
Unequivocally, he claims that the Leadership industry has not only empirically failed, with study after study of workplace discontent, but also that it contributes to that failure. As the cult of leadership has risen, its perceived effectiveness has fallen. Bullying, stress, discontent are the norm. A huge amount of evidence is presented to show failure after failure in so called ‘leadership’. What he uncovers is an almost wilful avoidance of evidence, measurement and data. He questions the very construct of leadership, suggesting that it was invented as a simplification to deliberately obfuscate the real complexity of the workplace. So despite the $20 billion spend, the results are depressingly disappointing.

What happened?
Pfeffer’s challenge is to recognise reality and accept that the workplace and people are much more complex than the feel-good training courses suggest. In reality, leaders’ behaviours are often at odds with those of the organisation. Their interests in terms of rewards, promotion and progress are often at odds with those they manage and even the organisations they lead.

His arguments against ‘Leadership training’ are pretty damning. Here’s just ten, he has dozens more:

1.     Most who offer leadership advice have never led anything
2.     If they have, they were notoriously unsuccessful
3.     Too many compensation consultants linked to leadership industry
4.     Woeful lack of actual expertise & knowledge
5.     Peddle inspiration not realities of management
6.     Rely largely on storytelling and anecdote
7.     Evaluation rarely beyond hours of training delivered etc.
8.     Stuck in primitive ‘happy-sheet’ evaluation
9.     Over-reliant on self-evaluation
10. Totally unaccountable

In the content he finds no-end of stories and anecdotes (as opposed to evidence) that are exaggerated, even fabricated. These myths are counter-productive as they produce cynicism in employees. The rhetoric is not matched by actual action and behaviour. Worse, those who don’t conform to the out-dated leadership model don’t get promoted and may even get fired. Others, such as women and certain cultural minorities, that value modesty and collaboration, also suffer. These are his general criticisms but the strength of the book comes in the precise qualities he sees as being quite wrong-headed.

Given that the book was published in 2015, he was prescient in identifying Trump as a typical product of the charismatic leader cult. He plays the leadership game and is winning. Pfeffer punctures the idea that ‘modesty’ is an admired and effective leadership trait. He draws on Maccoby’s book The Productive Narcissist, and his own evidence, to show that modesty, far from being a virtue, stops managers from thinking for themselves and being resilient in the face of adversity. It is energy, confidence and dominance that gets them where they are, not modesty. The Leadership industry may be holding back women and other potential managers by promoting false promises, such as modesty. He also accuses HR and talent management companies of being dishonest here in training for these qualities then recruiting the very opposite.

It may surprise many that anyone would question ‘authenticity’ as a quality for leadership – but he does. He flips this to show that good managers need to do what people need them to do, not what they as managers simply want to do, not pander to their own views of themselves. Flight attendants, shop assistants, sales people and many others wouldn’t last a day by being totally ‘authentic’, neither do managers and leaders. He also mentions the ‘delicious irony’ of leadership trainers who ‘train’ people to be ‘authentic’, as if it is a trait that can be acquired in a classroom. Being authentic, is for Pfeffer, pretty much the opposite of what leaders need to be.

Much as trust would seem to be desirable in leadership, it may not be that simple. Bernie Madoff inspired ‘trust’. Indeed, many L&D Ponzi schemes work on ‘trust’ – NLP, Myers-Briggs. Trust, like faith can lead one into real trouble. It may be desirable not to trust lawyers, competitors, politicking managers. True objectivity and realism may only be the result of not trusting everyone to tell the truth within an organisation, as you will be misled, even duped. You need to be on the mark, alert to deception, moves, protecting the organisation and, truth be told, that means distrusting some people.

Rich in real examples of leaders who were less than ideal, he shows how leadership training misses the mark most of the time – especially with the titans of tech; Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Larry Ellison. Political, sports and other leaders get a similar treatment. Most of the positive examples turn out to have serious flaws. So, when we look at what are called successful leaders, they turn out to be very different from what the leadership industry tells us. His recommendation is to get serious on the research, mainly what is effective, then hold so-called 'leaders' to account - not with happy-sheet nostrums but real accountability. This is an important point. It's not ghat he promotes immodesty, being inauthentic and telling lies, only to recognise that leaders and emplyees are people and that human nature always wins out. The remedy is to identify what you need from proposed leaders and then to make sure that they perform to those measures. This is where HR and remuneration committees fail. They pretend to be doing this when what they actualy do is pander to an utdated cult of leadership.

Ponzi scheme
I have a similar but stronger position than Pfeffer on this, as I think the whole ‘Leadership’ narrative and training is misleading, harmful and Pozies out traditional management training as ‘Leadership’ courses. There is a lack of definition, theory and practice around the concept and it has become a Ponzi scheme, distracting from the real needs in workplace learning.


Near the end of the book he quotes the movie A Few Good Men, “You want the truth?... You can’t handle the truth!” Only read this book if you are willing to open your mind to the possibility that most of what you’ve heard about Leadership training is BS.  It’s a hard pill to swallow for the L&D community – but the more we delay the cure, the bigger the epidemic of BS will become. It has already infected our schools, our politics. Let's ban the word 'leadership'. It's BS.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

7 ways to Square the African Circle (E-learning Africa)

Egypt has always been fond of grand gestures, from the Pyramids to the Aswan Dam, so it was fitting that we heard from Ismail Serageldin about the wonders of the modern Library at Alexandria (he’s the boss) – but I wonder. He talked about the Rhind Papyrus, where the Egyptians showed how to square the circle. But what circles is this institution squaring? It seemed to be more of a relic of the past, with its 15 Institutes, 19 Museums and 7 Libraries. It seemed to look more to the past than the future. He did, however, have one good line; that, in Africa,  Rhetoric, Plans, Visions and Announcements are not equal to ACTION.
1. Squaring the scale circle
On that note I was far more interested in Toby Shapshak, who I spoke to later. He was looking to Africa’s future and saw everywhere, signs of innovation that need to be encouraged. He highlighted mobile banking, where even a custom’s official had asked him for a bribe via the mobile banking app M-Pesa. Interesting tale, as that is the first circle that has to be squared - scale. You have the technology, what Africa now needs is a rapid ramp up, not of buildings and institutions but scalable internet infrastructure. It needs connectivity, not concrete.
2. Squaring the education circle
Shapshak was critical of the rigid formal education he sees across Africa, archaic content, old textbooks, rote learning and poor teaching. The Library of Alexandria seemed a long way off from the innovation of Elon Musk, an African who really is changing the world. He was an outsider from Pretoria, not someone from within the formal education system. In fact he was mercilessly bullied at school and eventually dropped out of his post-graduate degree after 2 days. He was self-driven, not driven by institutional goals. And boy, what a success – SpaceX, Tesla, SloarCity, OpenAI. Throughout the conference I heard abstract presentations from academia, mistaking rhetoric for action, papers for innovation, research for action. The innovation in Africa will not come from African Universities. It will come from their entrepreneurial culture. Sure you need the bedrock of good education and educational institutions but don’t buy into the myth that this is the true path for future prosperity.
Indeed the almost obsessive focus on University education may even exacerbate inequalities, as the elite get the opportunity while the vast majority do not. At all of these conferences the academic contingent has a disproportionate voice, as they are often the only group that are funded to attend. Africa’s greatest need is for vocational not academic education. It cannot afford to make the same mistake as the rest of us and ignore vocational learning. Continuing to build Universities, without an adequate skills base, is not sustainable, as the Universities, in my view, will not be the place from which innovation comes. This point was stated to me, time after time, by the young entrepreneurs at the conference. University courses in entrepreneurship – that is rhetoric, not ACTION.
3. Squaring the geographic circle
There is no Africa. There is a landmass called Africa, but there is a huge divide between the largely Islamic, northern Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. This is causing huge problems in war zones such as South Sudan, Somalia and northern Nigeria. The very real refugee problem is one product of this fault line and education for refugees was discussed in detail. Many of the people at the conference had to travel to the Middle East, Turkey or Europe to get to Cairo, from their African countries. This is, in some ways, a divided continent. One of the problems with the African Unions’s 2063 goals, is that this is the age when 50 year plans are trumped by actual progress on the ground. The 2063 African Union goals are all very well but the rhetoric of unity does not equal ACTION.
4. Squaring online learning
Africa cannot allow learning to be totally contained within the box that is the traditional classroom. Like mobile banking, it has the opportunity to think and act out of the box, turn its problems into opportunities. This needs less attention on device-led projects such as Mitra’s Hole in the wall, Negroponte’s tablets into Ethiopian villages or OLPC. It needs to avoid ‘device fetish’ and build infrastructure. Online infrastructure, connectivity, low tariffs and wider access, will create the soil within which African innovation can grow. Grab this opportunity, to reshape education, like Tunisia, with a mandate for a percentage of all learning to be delivered online. Take the lead from Kenya, with its East African cloud-delivered content service. Focus, like Zimbabwe, on exemplary teacher training with compulsory training on the use of technology. I heard all of these policies when I was on the panel in the closed Ministerial session. These were policies I rarely hear outside of Africa. The politicians have some vision here – we must share these policies and turn those policies into ACTION.
5. Squaring the NGO circle
Another group that get a disproportionate voice at African conferences are NGOs, again because they are well-funded and can afford the travel. Don’t get me wrong they often do a great job but they are far from the solution to most problems. In fact solutions are rarely optimised as they are driven by the funding agendas of the NGOs, who often just do their own thing. Africa needs to free itself from this dependency. Of course, this is easy to say but difficult to do. Education, in particular, can become the plaything for external and religious groups, Christian and Islamic. Rather than closing young minds down, they need to be opened up to the possibilities of the future. This will only happen when education becomes well funded from within African states. NGO support may, in the long-term, simply exacerbate the problem.
6. Squaring tradition with inclusivity
We ended the conference with a wonderful debate, pitching ‘tradition against ‘inclusivity’. Formally, it was two men versus two women. Unfortunately, most of the men seemed to favour tradition, the women inclusivity. It was an entertaining debate but beneath the surface lurked the question of gender equality, FGM and poverty. Bizarrely some in the room claimed that Ancient Egypt was some great example gender equality. Talk about rewriting history! This was several thousand years of rarely uninterrupted patriarchal rule. When the occasional woman did get a chance, like Hatshepsut, all signs of her existence, statues and inscriptions, were meticulously destroyed. Progress on inclusivity on gender, gay rights and other issues, still has a long way to go. Thankfully, my good friend Maggie, from Namibia, with her Egyptian colleague, Amany Asfour, won the debate, supporting inclusivity above tradition.
7. Let’s square the circle
I have been coming to e-learning Africa for some time and have learnt one lesson from my many friends there – that in this vast continent, there is one thing that has already squared the African circle. That one thing is the internet. It gives the promise of scalable solutions for the problems which exist on a massive scale across this continent – in education, healthcare, agriculture, energy provision, water provision, tourism and resources. From Cairo to Capetown, Lagos to Nairobi, and beyond, one wonder binds us all – the internet.
Africa was where the first technology was invented – the tools and technology that shaped our modern brains, technology has come full circle and returned to envelop the whole of Africa. Mobile use is only one example of leapfrogging. Elon Musk has just announced ‘Open AI’ – I would hope that this sort of leapfrog thinking, from an African, can be embraced and exploited in Africa, in the same way. There is no shortage of eager young people, 3 in 5 are under 24, and with Africa’s population due to explode, that’s where one has to look. Not to the tired old men in dark suits but to Jessica, Toyose and Maggie. The World Bank estimate that a 10% increase in broadband access results in a 1.4 % increase in GDP. Way to go.

I’ve tried to put across my impressions without either Afro-pessimism or Afro-optimism, but with Afro-realism. Now that the circle is truly squared, let’s get on and take some action. See you all at next year’s E-learning Africa.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Why the tablets in schools debacle is over

After the California debacle, schools in five states (Virginia, California, Maine, Texas and North Carolina) are starting to swap out tablets for the laptops they should have purchased in the first place. It started with a survey in Maine, where teachers and students expressed a preference for laptops over tablets.
To be exact, 88.5% of teachers and 74% of grade 7-12 students wanted laptops, not iPads. The observations were clear, that while iPads may be appropriate for young children, they are not suitable for older children who need to acquire writing and other more sophisticated skills using tools that don’t work on iPads,
“shortcomings for older students”
"provide no educational function in the classroom” “students use them as toys”
“word processing near to impossible … I applaud this change.”
“largely students’ gaming devices”
“a disaster”
“WE NEED LAPTOPS!!!” a student said, three times.
Apple has caved in and swapped the tablets for reduced price MacBook Air laptops. This reflects the fall in sales of iPads, now at their lowest since 2011. What went wrong?
(Tablets) Disaster in the taking
So tablets have been swallowed by the hundreds of thousands in education but shown to have serious side effects. I’ve been writing and talking about this impending disaster since the start of 2013. My claim is that for learners beyond young children in primary schools, tablets do more damage than good.
7 reasons why tablets should NOT be used in education
When this madness began, in 2013, in ‘Too cool for school: 7 reasons why tablets should NOT be used in education’, I argued that tablets were not the device of choice for teachers and students, poor for writing, encouraged facile creativity, were consumer not producer devices and awful for coding. They were vanity projects, too expensive, as well as teacher and student unfriendly.
7 reasons why buying tablets is lousy advice
In ‘Keep on taking the tablets: 7 reasons why this is lousy advice’, I argued that the perfect storm of aggressive vendors, na├»ve buyers, little or no cost effectiveness analysis (different from cost benefits), placebo research and groupthink, led to a tsunami of poor procurement. I’d add the cult of ‘Leadership’ in schools, that has become shorthand for a few folk making decisions without consulting the rest, also contributed to the lemming-like rush to buy them.
7 researched ways 'tablets' can inhibit learning
At that time, I also detailed ‘7 researched ways 'tablets' can inhibit learning’. Physical and cognitive ergonomic principles were used to show that tablets are inferior in all sorts of learning tasks, especially writing, where they inhibit the development of complex writing but also in coding, graphics, sustained tasks and so on. 
Device fetish
Beyond this, I have argued that education suffers from ‘device fetish’, which is to concentrate on the wrong end of the problem, using student opinion to show that tablets were unsuitable for sustained skills development. When students reach secondary they have to learn higher order skills which tablets do not, in general, support the sort of digital literacy they need to know. To progress they neeed to have an input device that allows quick and low errorinput with haptic feedback - not a touchscreen keyboard. They also need more control over what that device does. iPads were designed to be consumer, not producer devices - they inhibit progress.
This is a near perfect example of how and why technology in education so often shoots itself in the foot. Obsessed by devices, itself a function of the refusal to do any serious analysis on what is actually needed, schools, ‘leaders’ and vendors opt for easy, but ill-fated, solutions - it was a gold-rush mentality. Rather than focus on good tools, content and services, they rushed towards hardware. Why? I suspect it’s less challenging, doesn’t threaten ‘teaching’ and is seen as an adjunct, rather than core, pedagogic approach. Here's the solution - do the research, listen to what learners actually want. Stop this amateurish, device madness. Note that I'm happy with their use in primary school and also with tablets that have full keyboards (those are really laptops) but even here one has to be careful on costs.   

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

20 unorthodox public speaking (DO & DON'T) tips

I’ve done a lot of public speaking over the years, all around the world. Not saying I know all the answers, but if you are petrified about public speaking or want some tips, here’s a few that you don’t often see in the textbooks. I’ve aimed it at education and training.
10 DON’Ts
DON’T list objectives or what you plan to cover – BOOOOORing!
DON’T do list of company stats – no of employees etc. – DULL!
DON’T use notes – looks as if you don’t know your shit.
DON’T hide or stand behind lectern or table (definitely don’t sit).
DON’T play overlong videos – more than a minute is too long.
DON”T show slide 'We learn 10% by... 20% by... 30% by... it's Bull.
DON’T do text only PowerPoints - they'll want you to die & you will.
DON’T show pyramids on slides, Maslow etc – they’re usually BS.
DON’T show quotes from Einstein.
DON’T have list of words starting with same letter, especially ‘C’.
10 DOs
DO be yourself  – even if that means swearing (I do) (proof)!
DO start with a clippy observation, story or anecdote.
DO walk from one side to other & look whole audience in eye.
DO come forward and go back, use the whole stage.
DO be contentious – why tell them things they already believe.
DO change tone, pace and volume to emphasise points.
DO stop and signal change of topic/pace.
DO get animated – be lively and passionate.
DO use a clicker (whatever you call that thing) for slides.

DO end with ‘Thanks for listening’  - it’s a good cue for Q&A.
The worst talk I ever saw was by an academic, who, in a monotone voice, read a prepared paper from a lectern, that was nothing but stats about her university, for an hour, to the minute. At the end, she was thanked by the Chair, as Professor of Communication at Moscow University. I was literally in stitches. Why would anyone read a paper from a lectern - this makes no sense - email it to me but don't make me sit through this nonsense.
Last word, say what you really think, not what you think they want to hear. And don't play to the happy sheet thing. You're not a clown and the point is not to make them 'happy'. If anything make them uncomfortable. Take people out of their comfort zone,the groupthing that is so common in the learning game. Thanks for listening....