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Leadership: The cult that led to bad management

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13th Aug 2014
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Originally published on his blog, Donald Clark takes on the ever-popular topic of leadership, with predictably fiery results.

'Leader' is an odd word when it comes to management. It’s a bit phoney and exaggerated but does it also lead to dysfunctional behaviour? What do you do for a living? I’m a ‘leader’. Cue laughter and ridicule. Have you ever heard anyone in an organisation say, 'We need to ask our 'Leader'?' - only if it was with sneering sarcasm.

Weasel words

When I first started in the learning world over 30 years ago 'leader' was not a word I heard at all. There was plenty of good management theory and training and most people who headed up companies were called 'managing directors'. Then the tech bubble came along in the 90s and we all went gaga for snazzy, new US terms and everyone swapped out the sober and descriptive MD for CEO (Chief Executive Officer) (I’m guilty here). The word ‘chief’ is an interesting choice. You were no longer someone who ‘managed’ others but the big chief, big cheese, a big shot. It was then that another word rose like Godzilla from the depths of the cess pit that is HR lingo – ‘leader’. Suddenly, managers weren’t people with competences but top dogs who ‘Led’ people towards victory. Mike, senior manager in accounts, was now a dog of war.

Followers

The opposite of leader is follower. In a sense the word infers that the people you lead and manage are followers. It sets you apart from other people, not a great quality in management. Of course, leadership trainers will tell you that it’s not about creating followers, but in practice this is the effect the word creates and management trainers jump through hoops to reconcile this leader/follower dilemma. If you want to avoid this problem, simply don’t use the word ‘leader’. Avoid the cult of leadership.

Leadership courses

When the language changed so did the training. HR bods were suddenly the leading thinkers on leadership. HR and training departments saw an opportunity to big-up their status by breeding not managers, but leaders. Middle managers went on ‘leadership’ courses run by people who had never led anything, except flipchart workshops, in their entire lives. In practice this meant cobbling together stuff from existing management courses and adding a veneer of specious content from books on leadership. Winging it became a new course design methodology and every management trainer in the land suddenly became a leadership trainer.

Middle managers went crazy for books they’d never dreamt of reading. I’ve seen everything from Meditations by Marcus Aurelius to Lao Tzu’s Art of War touted as serious 'leadership' texts. I knew it had all gone seriously wrong when I saw a commuter, with a bad suit and combination lock briefcase, on the 7.15 from Brighton to London, reading ‘The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan’. What next? Hitler, Stalin...Pol Pot?

Led to the abyss

Managers loved their new found status as little generals, leading the troops. They responded to the training as narcissists respond to flattery, with gusto. I don’t think it’s an accident that this coincided with the megalomaniac behaviour in the banks where ‘leaders’ fed on a high-octane diet of ‘leadership’ training, ‘led’ us into the abyss of financial collapse. These ‘leaders’ adopted delusional strategies based on over-confidence and a lack of reality. There’s a price to pay for believing that you’re destined to ‘lead’ – realism. Managers who now saw themselves as ‘Leaders of the pack’ engaged in behaviours that flowed from the word. They became driven by their own goals and not the goals of the organisation or others. It also led to greater differentials between leader and follower salaries.

Alternative to leadership

Henry Mintzberg, the author of Managers not MBAs, deflates the leadership bubble nicely in this summary of his views:

Isn’t it time to think of our organisations as communities of cooperation, and in so doing put leadership in its place: not gone, but alongside other important social processes.

What should be gone is this magic bullet of the individual as the solution to the world’s problems. We are the solution to the world’s problems, you and me, all of us, working in concert. This obsession with leadership is the cause of many of the world’s problems.

 And with this, let us get rid of the cult of leadership, striking at least one blow at our increasing obsession with individuality. Not to create a new cult around distributed leadership, but to recognize that the very use of the word 'leadership' tilts thinking toward the individual and away from the community. We don’t only need better leadership, we also need less leadership.”

This gets to the heart of the matter. We need more management, less leadership.

Conclusion

We have seen leaders in every area of human endeavour succumb to the tyranny of ‘leadership’, in business, politics, newspapers, sport, even the police. Rather than focus on competences and sound management; fuelled by greed, they focused on personal rewards and ‘go for broke’ strategies. So what happened to these 'leaders’? Did they lose their own money? No. Did any go to jail? No. Are they still around? Yes. Have we reflected on whether all of that ‘leadership’ malarkey was right? No. Let’s get real and go back to realistic learning and realistic titles.

Donald Clark was CEO and one of the original founders of Epic Group plc, which established itself as the leading company in the UK online learning market. Donald has 30 years experience in online learning, games, simulations, social media and mobile learning projects and designed, delivered and advised on online learning for many global, public and private organisations

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