The seduction of leadership gurus
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.
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