A provocative perspective on leadership

Leaders of every sort are in disrepute, the extensive activities of the leadership teaching industry have not caused improvement in the average quality of leadership, we still do not have a very clear understanding of how to grow good leaders or stop bad ones, and disillusioned followers are growing entitled, emboldened and empowered, according to Barbara Kellerman in her book The End of Leadership.

The first six of the eight chapters of the book give an historical perspective explaining how and why the extent of powers enjoyed by leaders have been diminishing. Confucius’s ideal leader was a “gentleman”; Plato’s ideal was a philosopher-king. In the Middle Ages, royalty ruled on earth and God, through the Catholic Church, ruled the kingdom of heaven. The introduction of printing technology enabled Martin Luther to challenge the authority of the Catholic Church, and since then the absolute powers of leaders have been receding, as followers have become more empowered to communicate with each other and co-operate to resist tyranny.

In the workplace, concepts such as bottom-up control, employee activism and corporate democracy started coming into vogue in the 1970s. Command-and-control management theory gave way to cooperation and collaboration. Chief executives became servant-leaders and team players. The personal lives of prominent leaders are now examined publicly, and through social media leaders are subjected to streams of criticism and vitriol. The leader’s ability to control his or her environment has largely disappeared as the result of advances in communication technology.

The author offers a range of criticisms of the leadership industry: it is poorly policed and not objectively assessed; leadership as an area of intellectual inquiry remains thin; and the evidence for whether it is even possible to teach how to lead wisely and well is scant. In my view these criticisms are well taken: there are useful skills that can be taught, and it is possible to teach about the importance of character attributes such as courage, integrity and resilience, but it may not be possible to actually change a person’s character to supply essential attributes that are lacking. What is really needed is verifiable data comparing people’s leadership performance before and after undergoing leadership training programs.

The author also criticises leadership training for being leader-centric, and failing to teach followership skills such as how to engage, how to collaborate and compromise, how to serve and support good leaders or challenge bad leaders, and how to speak truth to power. In my opinion this criticism is overstated. I cannot comment about leadership programs in general, but I am certainly aware of useful leadership resources dealing with all of these topics.

I also felt that the author’s criticism of the leadership industry for its failure to stop bad leaders was overstated. Leadership trainers do not normally have control over who holds leadership positions or how they behave. Organisations are responsible for the selection and performance management of their own staff including their leaders.

Notwithstanding my disagreement with many of the author’s ideas, I found the book highly engaging and usefully provocative. The historical perspective on the changing nature of leadership is a helpful one, and many challenging questions raised by the author are in need of answers.

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