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Donald Clark

Wildfire Learning


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Is leadership an L&D obsession?

L&D is obsessing over leadership and it’s time to stop.

You meet someone for the first time and ask what they do for a living: ‘I’m a leader,’ they say…‘Taxi!’ This obsession with leadership;  a tsunami of bad books, consultants who haven’t led anything other than a workshop and half-baked courses, is getting out of hand.

Enough of the rhetoric

Never have we had so much rhetoric on leadership and so little of it. I say rhetoric, as it is all so diffuse and poorly defined. There is a bewildering range of adjectives shoved in front of the word ‘leader’, the most surreal being ‘servant’ - which has created this monster, you need a monstrous opposite to balance it out! 

The courses are full of ‘nice’ words, like authenticity, modesty, transparency and trust. Sun Tzu is out, touchy-feely is in. There are also the inevitable ‘leadership styles’. Just as you thought ‘learning styles’ had been debunked, in sweeps its leadership ghost. 

We don’t need normative wish lists but evidence and the realities of the workplace

The relentless use of this hierarchical, elitist language is rather odd in these days of flat structures and the open workplace. The last desperate resort of this weird logic, and I’ve heard it several times, is that everyone’s a leader, rendering the word absolutely meaningless. At that point, Leadership theory has eaten itself alive.

Forget the platitudes

Another problem is omission. You don’t get Steve Jobs, Bill gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison or Elon Musk mentioned in leadership courses, despite them having led the most successful companies of our age. Professor Pfeffer, of Stanford Business School, makes this very point, that leadership training censors what is complex and messy in management, so lacks realism in favour of the idealistic presentation of virtues. 

In place of realism, comes platitudes, nostrums, stories, anecdotes, glib simplicities, bromides, myth-making and feel-good nonsense. What we don’t need are normative wish lists but evidence and the realities of the workplace. 

Pfeffer’s arguments also include the simple observations that most who offer leadership advice have never led anything and if they have, were notoriously unsuccessful. Then there are too many compensation consultants linked to the leadership industry, many with a woeful lack of actual expertise and knowledge. 

The result is the peddling of inspiration relying largely on storytelling and anecdote, not the complexities of management.

Would it surprise you that I question ‘authenticity’ as a quality for leadership? Flight attendants, shop assistants, salespeople and many others wouldn’t last a day by being totally ‘authentic’, and neither do managers and leaders. Pfeffer also points out 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. 

Where is the trust?

Similarly with that old staple ‘trust’. Bernie Madoff inspired ‘trust’. Indeed, many L&D Ponzi schemes work on ‘trust’ – NLP, learning styles and Myers-Briggs, to name but three. Trust can get one into real trouble. 

It may not be desirable to trust lawyers, competitors and politicking managers. True objectivity and realism may 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 and moves, and protect the organisation and its people – and that means distrusting some people.

This focus on the few not the many has also meant a disproportionate amount of budget spent on the wrong people

Elusive leadership traits

Modesty or humility is another admired trait but far from being a virtue, may stop managers from being resilient in the face of adversity. It is often energy, confidence and dominance that gets them where they are, not modesty.

We all know that HR and talent management often tout certain leadership traits and then recruit the very opposite. I’d go further and say this focus on leadership is causing damage. 

Never have we had so much rhetoric around leadership and so little of it. Those who don’t conform to whatever fashionable model is adopted, don’t get promoted and may even get fired. Others, such as women and certain cultural minorities, that value other traits, also suffer. 

This focus on the few not the many has also meant a disproportionate amount of budget spent on the wrong people. These expensive courses for supposed leaders, as opposed to training for competence across the workforce, have led, I’d argue, to serious skills issues.

It may even be counterproductive in failing to raise productivity, even resulting in falls in productivity; nobody actually knows, as there is no evaluation, apart from self-evaluation questionnaires and so the leadership-industrial-complex remains smugly self-satisfied but unaccountable.

Making the fat cats fatter

We have also seen inflation in so-called leaders’ salaries, while we struggle to find minimum wage workers, greatly increasing inequalities. In education, we have SLTs (Senior Leadership Teams), a cadre of teachers who no longer teach, in organisations that should be communities not strictly, hierarchical structures. 

The cult of leadership led us to the financial crisis (give us huge bonuses – we’re leaders don’t you know) and now political and business leadership that verges on the insane. Tell people they are leaders and they’ll take it all too seriously and look down on the rest.

I rarely call people leaders, I find the word embarrassing

Time to call and end to the cult of leadership

Is it possible that most of what you’ve heard about leadership training is wrong-headed? Largely the result of airport potboilers, the whole leadership cult is completely exaggerated and out of control. Could we have been misled into thinking that we would be taken more seriously if we target our budgets at those who give us those budgets? I rarely call people leaders, I find the word embarrassing. 

It is time we stopped this divisive, superior attitude towards training and focus on actual needs, not seeing organisations as little armies led by, albeit nice, generals and officers. The first sign of true leadership is to stop calling yourself and others leaders.

Interested in this topic? Read Leadership development: What you are doing wrong and how to fix it.

3 Responses

  1. Although I find this a little
    Although I find this a little harsh I do agree with a lot of this article

    I do run a leadership course and try to demystify a lot of the nonsense. But I don’t think it’s all nonsense.

    For me leadership is simple.

    1. Say please and thank you
    2. Treat people the way you like to be treated
    3. Er… that’s it!

    1. What you say is why
      What you say is why successful CEOs don’t just want a leader. There are 15 hard skill competencies of the leadership function of management, but there are 55 additional hard skill competencies of the other 5 functions. And none of the competencies are soft skills like empathy, sympathy, DEI. In order to become an executive, you must master all 70 hard skill competencies of the 6 functions, but each level of management requires a different level of mastery.
      CEOs don’t just want leaders.

      1. Surely by spending so much
        Surely by spending so much time to master all 70 hard skills there’ll be no time to do the job.

        I’ll stick to my 3. Point plan thanks.

        Or are you being ironic?

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