Leadership: Rise of the self-serving leader

If it weren’t so infuriatingly destructive, how delicious might the irony seem? Just as chief executives and directors of our largest public and private sector enterprises trot out new reasons for ramping up their remuneration and fee packages, so we learn that the leadership capabilities for which they so generously reward themselves are make-believe.
The honest among them probably know that. For the self-delusional, the revelations of American leadership expert Barbara Kellerman as revealed in her latest book, The End of Leadership, may come as something of surprise. For those of us forced to grin and bear the boardroom bunkum about market comparability and so on, it’s yet more evidence of transformational swell that threatens to overturn existing organisational and political leadership models.
Reflect momentarily on New Zealand’s shortage of leaders, particularly business and political. Sure some individuals, like our richest man Graeme Hart, make heaps of money but that particular capability does not necessarily, or even often, equate with either desirable or inspirational leadership. Exploitive or opportunistic perhaps? No, as James S Rosebush, former advisor to US president Ronald Reagan and now leadership writer and author, said recently: “… we are experiencing dearth of leadership in society”.
Kellerman argues that followers no longer believe in their leaders, and with good reason. The way in which an increasing number of organisational leaders reward themselves or are rewarded by their director cohort, does little to ameliorate feelings of discontent and disillusionment. And the disparity in reward between leader and led is the first and most compelling step toward undermining leadership authenticity.
There is growing disconnect between what leaders “earn” and what they think they are entitled to. No argument, genuine leadership is hard, demanding work. But it is not all about the individual. Leaders who believe they “deserve” their unfair and unreasonable remuneration because they are somehow special aren’t very special at all.
The reward processes now adopted by many boards and their recruitment consultants run counter to the principles of motivational leadership. It is, in fact, leadership hypocrisy. To dress it in any other guise, no matter how cleverly designed, is deceit. As an aside, it was Warren Buffet’s offsider Charlie Munger who said he would “rather throw viper down his shirtfront than hire compensation consultant”.
Leaders who believe they deserve, or are entitled to, dispensation from the laws of fair play, effectively threaten leadership principles and practices. The self-focused individual cedes the right to influence because they take themselves out of the community of interest. They don’t, as one commentator put it, “lead for the cause but only as means to serve themselves”. The outcomes of that process include distrust, cynicism, the wrong kind of competition and isolated thinking.
Leaders should connect life’s dots, make meaning out of chaos and, either avoid disconnections or make them right. Something serious has gone wrong with the concept of servant leadership. Self-serving leadership is more prevalent.
Leadership is role not position. Are the principles of leadership redundant in today’s more grasping world? Perhaps that is why Kellerman thinks leadership is over.
“Humankind writ large is suffering from crisis of confidence in those who are charged with leading wisely… and from surfeit of most well-intentioned but finally false promises made by those supposed to make things better,” she says.
I like the idea that leadership is about “channeling all that we are for the benefit of others”. I don’t see much of that about and, with the recent death of scientist and 2011 New Zealander of the Year, Sir Paul Callaghan, the ranks of true Kiwi leaders are further reduced.
Another leadership writer, Glenn Llopis, wrote recently that “successful leadership is something that happens organically when leader focuses on the true impact of his or her actions”. Available evidence suggests that too few of our organisational leaders care much about either the impact or the context of their actions when it comes to rewarding themselves. M

Reg Birchfield is writer on leadership, governance & management. [email protected]

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