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The seduction of leadership gurus

Matthew Stewart
Matthew Stewart, a former management consultant, is the author, most recently, of The Management Myth: Why the 'Experts' Keep Getting It Wrong.

When I showed up for my first job as a management consultant--a job that I imagined would soon require me to make tough decisions involving the fate of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in profits--I felt ready to lead. I had read Tom Peters' In Search of Excellence cover to cover. I had read Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. Excellence in leadership, I decided, was my thing.

Great was my surprise, of course, when I finally started work. As I chatted with the bright young people who had been hired along with me, many of them products of the finest business schools, it hit me. They were leadership experts too! We were all leaders!

With the benefit of a little more experience and a lot more reading, I have concluded there are two things you need to know about the leadership literature. The first is that it's all true. Great leaders do understand how to get the most out of their people. Great leaders do listen to their people. Great leaders are decisive--except of course when it's better not to be. The second thing you already knew is that none of these principles works unless applied correctly. And as far as that goes, you're on your own.

I don't mean to be hard on the leadership gurus. I like the stories they tell. I want to be like Ray Kroc and create a multi-billion dollar fast-food enterprise, or at least I like to fantasize about what it would be like to be Ray Kroc. We can all benefit from a little inspiration and from being reminded of the important things we tend to forget when we're actually trying to get things done.

The problem with leadership gurus is just that they are trapped within the merciless premises of their genre. The first axiom of the leadership business is that it's all about you. If you are a great leader, this is because you are great. If you are not already a great leader, look within, my friend, look within--or buy my book. The second is that it's good to be on top.

These are fine premises for a genre of books and seminars aimed at motivating people to realize their potential (or perhaps just to work very hard). They become problematic, however, when used as the basis for organizing economic life--mainly because they aren't entirely true. So now, like any good leadership guru, I am going to tell you what the other gurus won't tell you (but that you already knew anyway):

Great leadership isn't teachable. Your chances of becoming a great leader by reading a book, attending a seminar, or going to business school are about as good as your chances of becoming a great tennis player by the same means. Your genes, your upbringing, your years of practice, and your level of effort will matter more than all the rules in all the leadership books ever written. Test this premise yourself: Make a list of your favorite leaders, then google their education or other advance leadership qualifications. For example: Abraham Lincoln, hick lawyer; Bill Gates, college drop-out; Warren Buffett, rejected from Harvard Business School. See--no correlation!

Great leadership is a property of groups, not individuals. It's not just that great groups of people are easy to lead.. It's that great groups restrain their leaders. They stop them from becoming bad leaders--which, as we know from the history of the Caesars, is exactly what all leaders become if nobody stops them. Even more than it is a property of groups, in fact, great leadership is a property of systems--something that James Madison and his great group of friends understood quite well when framing the U.S. Constitution.

Great leadership is circumstantial. The astounding number of failures among CEOs who take their vaunted leadership skills from one part of the economy to another should give some idea of just how much great leadership depends on specific, non-repeatable circumstances. Would Rudy Giuliani have been resurrected as a great leader without 9/11? In fact, you may have the full potential for great leadership, but never be called upon to use it.

Great leadership can get ugly. According to the leadership gurus, a great leader is a truly adorable person. Aside from having incredible personal qualities and impeccable integrity, he or she offers constant reinforcement and helps us realize our dreams. They obviously never met some of the people I worked with. The grim truth is that nasty leaders often get away with it, and the even grimmer truth is that a little nastiness is sometimes a part of leadership. The point is not that we should encourage unpleasant behavior. It's that anyone seriously interested in understanding how leadership works needs to study it as it is, not as we wish it to be.

Experts and gurus ignore these awkward aspects of leadership, with unintended consequences on our business culture. In business-school courses and the business media, we now inhabit a mythological world where charismatic leaders have mastered the very forces of nature and can squeeze profits out of rocks with their bare hands. This leaves the rest of us with the job of sitting up on the couch and yelling our advice at the screen. It makes for a great viewing experience. But it isn't a great way to understand the actual sources of our prosperity. Nor is it a great way to develop the practices of participation and accountability that characterize those systems that are capable of producing good leadership. It's really quite a paradox.

Everyone today expects to be a leader, with the consequence that everyone is a follower and no one really leads.

By Matthew Stewart

 |  November 13, 2009; 5:29 AM ET |  Category:  Leadership advice Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Pretend for a moment that you run a company and you are asked to prioritize the following three things from most important to least important: yourself, your staff, and your clients. I wonder how many people would agree that the highest priority is your staff, followed by your clients, followed by yourself?

Posted by: JimJoe | November 13, 2009 1:02 PM

Good article. I'll add a few thoughts. The basics don't change from year to year no matter how they are repackaged in the latest book. The difference between leaders and managers is sometimes hard to see. Both make decisions large and small in keeping with their core beliefs and past experience. They, internalize the lessons learned from those decisions to increase their ability to make the "right" decision next time. Leaders though, take action on their beliefs in the face of adversity to provide vision, motivation, and support to those they lead.

Posted by: t_a_forrester | November 13, 2009 12:03 PM

The old broad told us no one can manage people. They must be lead to ever get anywhere. By someone going with them. Twenty odd years later, I found myself working for a big international corporation. The management was orthodox and useless. When a small entrepreneur bought the business unit, their first official act was to escort some forty-odd executive vice presidents out of the building. That revealed some millions of cash in a contingency fund. The new owners were young MBAs with their home office across the country. The unit failed completely in less than a decade. Good ideas and excellent schooling cannot support remote management, neither. Teaching little business seminars may be a career path, for some. What they peddle is not always adequate to the tasks at hand. Someone notices, this, occasionally. But, some very clever business models simply cannot work. They just present well, initially. Buyer beware ;)

Posted by: AlanMarcy | November 13, 2009 11:50 AM

Experts keep getting it wrong because the people they are selling to aren't willing or ready to hear the truth. For 30 years no one in the US listened to Deming, Juran, or anything Walter Shewhart had to say.

Then in the 80's out of desperation everyone jumped on the bandwagon but then when the leaders had to made a decision to continue to follow a difficult path or give into greed - most gave in and let their companies fall apart.

The allure of the quick buck points to a system that discourages leadership and instead encourages corruption. Quit thinking about individuals being great and instead think of systems that foster greatness and reward excellence and don't tempt the individual with huge bonuses and stock options.

Posted by: agapn9 | November 13, 2009 11:05 AM

Great column; nicely deflates the overblown "leadership industry" which serves mostly to massage the egos of managers and line the pockets of leadership gurus. As the author says, "The first axiom of the leadership business is that it's all about you. If you are a great leader, this is because you are great. If you are not already a great leader, look within, my friend, look within--or buy my book." And the book will give the reader hours of satisfying, though delusional, feelings of self-importance. And it will all become outdated in a few years: look at the boneyard of past "leadership" trends like "pursuit of excellence", "art of war", "management secrets of Ghengis Khan", "management through drum circles", etc. But ever-new trends will arise and the gurus will continue to reap their cash by whispering flattering nothings in the ears of gullible managers.

Posted by: alloleo | November 13, 2009 10:48 AM

BTW, in spite of my clearly negative references to Rand, I actually agree with many points the columnist goes on to make in the piece.

Posted by: free-donny | November 13, 2009 10:40 AM

In this new century, why would anyone wanting to be taken seriously claim Ayn Rand as an influence?

Rand's selfish pseudo-philosphy encouraging "sticking it to the other guy to get ahead" has largely been thrown on the garbage heap along with slavery, colonialism, and hopefully Dick Cheney.

America's future does NOT lie in its past. Hopefully, a new generation of leaders will focus on avoiding the mis-guided and greedy tailspin of the last 8 years.


Posted by: free-donny | November 13, 2009 10:18 AM

By the way, I really enjoy this series. It may be tired to those who've been in the leadership world for a long time. But for young up-and-coming leaders (or those who want to be, anyway), it's a useful way to explore some of the contradictions in the leadership field

Posted by: skeptic421 | November 13, 2009 10:08 AM

I think the author hit on a potentially important point: that leaders will not always be popular. I don't think it has to be "nastiness" (or boorishness, as others described). But making big changes means experiecing resistance. Some of that resistance can be moved with good leadership, other resistance comes from those with a vested interest in the status quo, and may not respond no matter how good the leader. As a leader you need to have thick skin, to be able to take the attacks from those interest groups for what they are, and bring as many people along as you can without sacrificing the goal . . .

Posted by: skeptic421 | November 13, 2009 10:05 AM

So true. Leadership can not be taught but leadership skills can. If the person receiving the message has the natural talent, it will be strengthened. If not, the message will be wasted.
I attended a short seminar on leadership with several of my fellow managers. One of the messages was to guide employees and let grow. Two of my colleagues said they already did that through mentoring but in reality, their "technique" was considered micromanaging and bullying by their staff. They just didn't "get it".

Posted by: pjohn2 | November 13, 2009 9:34 AM

I wholeheartedly agree with that leadership should not use their powerful status as an excuse to act like boorish bullies, emotionally immature teens or toddlers who throw temper tantrums.
Every day, I see the management manipulate HR to accomplish their goals (look good in their eyes/get the recognition for something/idea they never had).
Leadership is innate (and requires a fair amount of self-restraint and courage)-it is not learned from a book.

Posted by: yogahiker | November 13, 2009 9:12 AM

So many leadership experts, so few leaders!

The other thing that I have found is that just because you run a business or are the head of a government, etc. and make decisions does NOT make you a leader in the true sense of the word 'leading.' Telling a bunch of sheep (both literally and figuratively) what to do doesn't make a one leader.

Posted by: cmecyclist | November 13, 2009 8:47 AM

You know most leadership advice is BS when you go to the Business section of remainder book store and it's full of titles like:

How to make your organization run with the wolves
Innovating to create a world-class organization

It's really too bad the Post is wasting Steve Pearlstein on this.

Posted by: WmarkW | November 13, 2009 8:24 AM

Everyone..... today expects to be a leader,
No one.......today expects to be a leader,
Some........today expect to be a leader,
Hmmm..... Think I'll leave it as a zinger.

Posted by: Tamerack | November 13, 2009 7:20 AM

I have to disagree with "great leadership can get ugly." Those leadership gurus profile leaders who don't use their powerful status as an excuse to act like boorish bullies. If you haven't mastered what it means to truly be an adult - to not throw temper tantrums or use social aggression to take your anger out on someone else, whether they deserve it or not - then you are not truly capable of being a good leader. Good leaders can recognize the cause of their frustration and anger, and can address it in a mature, constructive manner.

Posted by: barretmb | November 13, 2009 7:02 AM

Following well can be harder than leading can. If you are not good at following, then you will never be good at leading. You won't be good at it because you won't understand it.

In order to lead well, you have to know when to follow others. That's what makes it possible for groups to do new things, or do old things better. It's why kings are a diminishing management model in government, and why the more insular a company is, the more prone to failure it will be.

Most of the 'do it my way' gurus of management and self-help end up falling into the pit of being gurus, and if they don't draw upon the work of a lot of other people openly, the amount of salt you take with their Kool-Aid should go up.

Posted by: Nymous | November 13, 2009 6:55 AM

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