Leadership: The rise of a troubling truth

There’s something rotten about the world of leadership. New findings and thinking about the authenticity of leadership and the “industry” that feeds upon the idea of leadership are emerging like bedbugs in New York’s upmarket hotels. Worse, they are rapidly turning previously heroic script into what can only be described as farce, one we are forced to watch endlessly play out on the world stage.
Both players and script writers are seemingly in cahoots and, as is now common practice in business and politics, unmercifully fleecing the punters.
How do we, for example, reconcile the time, thought and money poured into leadership pursuits only to produce universally fruitless outcomes? Leadership thinker and author Barbara Kellerman, whose latest book The End of Leadership is reviewed on page 22 in this issue, is particularly perturbed.
The leadership industry has exploded over the past few decades, but there is little to show for it. Leaders of every stripe are in disrepute, according to Kellerman, and the “tireless and often superficial teachings of leadership have brought us no closer to nirvana”.
Kellerman is concerned by what she calls the gap between the teaching and practice of leadership. And she is “downright queasy” about the proliferation of leadership centres, institutes, programmes, seminars, workshops, experiences, trainers, books, blogs, articles, websites, webinars, videos, conferences, consultants and coaches claiming to teach people – “usually for money” – how to lead.
The evidence of our eyes and everyday experiences show all too conclusively that no-one really knows how to successfully grow leaders or cull bad ones before they reap havoc. Despite the dollars and deliberations poured into trying to teach people how to lead, the “leadership industry has not in any major, meaningful or measurable way improved the human condition”, says Kellerman.
The evolution of gathering band of leadership agnostics is not particularly helpful. They may be drawing attention to an alarming reality but they don’t come armed with any answers.
It might be helpful, as some other academics have suggested, to have the many contradictions, inconsistencies and irrelevancies of what passes for leadership thought and training enumerated, but that doesn’t really help world badly in need of individuals with real and relevant leadership qualities and skills.
The fact that leaders are, according to the growing number of disgruntled and disillusioned followers, performing badly or worse than ever, doesn’t reduce the complexities of life or diminish the need to somehow winkle out those who can do leadership as opposed to those who say they can but don’t.
Unmasking leadership’s falsities is more than simply embarrassing for those on the game. Kellerman calls the state of the leadership industy “gnawing, growing, chronic problem that threatens the fabric of life in the 21st century”. She thinks it undermines the relationship between leaders and followers and “imposes disorder” on world requiring at least “modicum of order”.
Warren Bennis, another leadership guru and author of Still Surprised: memoir of life in leadership, thinks Kellerman’s book is “disturbingly honest and indispensable” and urges his fellow practitioners to “mind the hoary disconnect” between what the leadership industry produces about best practices and what leaders who read their books actually practise.
What leadership thinkers like Kellerman, Britain’s Gary Hamel, Bennis and others are now asking is: can leadership – can learning how to lead – be taught? The truth, they say, “is we don’t know”.
What Kellerman does say, rather provocatively, is that they know the leadership industry is “self satisfied, self perpetuating and poorly policed” and that, by and large, these are trying times in which “the leadership class” has not distinguished itself.
It is not, of course, either fair or reasonable to paint the entire leadership industry with the same off-coloured brush. According to Kellerman, the industry is not “without merit”. Not everyone who purports to teach leadership is flawed and not everyone who purports to have learned how to lead is misguided.
However, it is time to accept that the world has debilitating leadership problem which stretches across every aspect of human society – enterprise, politics and religion. Addressing it without acknowledging its existence won’t work. It hasn’t for the past couple of thousand years. M

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

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