Sunday, May 11, 2014

Are We 'Over-Selling' Leadership?

When the great leaders of decades and centuries past were motivating their followers to achieve a pre-defined goal, I just can’t picture their loyal followers having debates about whether Alexander the Great or Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi was a ‘Thought Leader’, or a ‘Transformational Leader’ – these kind of titles wouldn’t have interested them. They just had a leader that inspired and motivated them to want to follow – plain and simple.
In a 2012 article by Shel Israel in Forbes, he writes that “the term ‘thought leader’ seems as much in vogue today as ‘social media expert,’ was yesterday. Both terms are over-used, or so it seems to me, and that unfortunately lessens the impact of the words. Many people and companies claim thought leadership. Few achieve it.  In fact, the definition itself seems to be in flux.” Where Joel Kurtzman, now with the Milken Institute invented the term in 1994 as a theme for a series of interviews he conducted as editor in chief of Strategy + Business magazine. He defined a thought leader as someone who had ideas ‘that merited attention’. Which to be honest doesn’t really cut it for me as a definition about leadership to get really excited about.”
It seems to me that you can’t be a ‘proper’ leader if people aren’t following you willingly and that you, as a leader, have and achieve a ‘goal’ that benefits everyone – a goal that your followers understand (including the benefits and the risks involved).
Looking at some historically great leaders can always help bring us back to a potential path of effective leadership and the values that drive this phenomenon. In an article in Forbes (2009), Steve Forbes and John Prevas wrote that “Alexander the Great’s leadership style reflected his conviction that a man of ability and determination could inspire and direct others to accomplish anything he set his mind to. For Alexander it was all about conquest – ‘acquisitions’ in today’s corporate world. Alexander was able to connect with those he led because he exuded determination, projected confidence and ability, and generated excitement and passion for what he was doing. As the CEO of his enterprise, Conquest Inc., he was intensely involved in operations at every level; he believed in leadership by example. While he drove his officers and soldiers - sometimes mercilessly - through jungles and deserts and over mountains, he also inspired them with his personal courage and rewarded them generously for their efforts. His willingness to remain at the forefront of every operation, never asking more from those he led than he himself was willing to give, is what enabled him to keep his army behind him for so long.”
It seems that while ‘suppliers’ of leadership development are continuingly trying to repackage the ‘basics’ under some mouth-watering new theory that organisation’s will pay fat fees to learn – the leaders themselves are pretty much developing as before – which sadly isn’t that well. 
Command and control styles of leadership are so easy to adopt by those in leadership and the style doesn’t require much skill or talent – just the ability to use you position to get things done. It makes their ego’s feel good and they do see things get done – so for this type of leader, it all seems to work pretty well.
Yet as Sangeeth Varghese wrote in The Economic Times in 2010 “Leadership is changing! Modern companies are discovering that the command-and-control leadership methods of the previous century are extremely inefficient in the current fast-changing world. To attract and retain employees, today's work environment must focus on inspiring their capabilities in a much more open manner, compared to the earlier closed leadership model centered on the capabilities of a single leader. In the command-and-control leadership style, the leader was set apart by his position and was the sole authority for decision-making, while the group members just followed the orders with no specific authority or responsibility. This worked well in a factory kind of environment where more importance was on control. However, in the new age of technology this resulted in lack of innovation, creativity and accountability. Companies slowly started leaning towards leaders who saw themselves more as partners, supporters, coaches and facilitators. This helped the group members to make decisions along with the top management about how to do their jobs, helping these companies to perform better than their rivals on employee retention and morale, and other measures like innovation, profitability and market leadership.”
What we desperately need now are less debates around what to call effective leadership and more focus on the simple day-to-day actions of leaders becoming more effective in what they do – and inspiring and motivating their followers to want to follow them.
Forbes, S. and Prevas, J. (2009). The Price of Arrogance. Forbes. [In-line:]
Varghese, S. (2010). Command-and-control leadership is history. The Economic Times. [On-line:]

1 comment:

  1. Leadership is oversold. In a lot of workplaces I know of, there is no end to the leadership seminars, courses and strategical planning sessions that are all designed to produce better leaders. They haven't. They cost the workplaces a lot of money and I think it is another example of 'the emperor's new clothes'. There is so much hype involved. None of the leaders stay in place for more than a year or two; there are too much transition and instability; none of which are good for realizing long-term plans and goals. There are no longer long-term goals for the most part. Most employees hardly know from month to month who the top leaders are and have stopped caring. What we need is what you write--to get back to basics. Find leaders who want to motivate and inspire others, find leaders who are smart and emotionally intelligent, find leaders who are willing to lead, who are humble, and can deal with making mistakes occasionally and admitting this. It's not more complicated than that. It's not about taking the latest leadership course or being a trendsetter for the sake of trends. It's about being good at what you do, having a vision, and imparting that vision and supporting your employees in the realization of that vision.