Never let the facts get in the way of a good argument, and never let profound doubts interfere with the making of a buck. Such is the field of leadership, and the publishing and training industry that has grown up around and upon it. By Harry Onsman
The problem with leadership is that we don’t understand it, somewhat handicapping rational discussion and our ability to make sense of a thing that is generally deemed important to business. This has not held back the consulting industry, which thrives amid the confusion. And sheer ignorance won’t constrain those whose business relies on providing leadership programs.
By one count, there are 130 different definitions of leadership.
Like many good ideas, 360-degree feedback was soon packaged and sold by every two-bitconsultant in town, often flogging “proprietary” measurement tools that they knocked up in their spare time.
There is little empirical evidence to support the supposed linkage between performance and tenure. The key is the relative power between the board and the chief executive. CEOs are powerful if they have:
* They are also the chairman
* They are the founder
* They are answerable to a small board
US Researcher, Rakesh Khurana
No one has yet suggested that we will find a leadership gene; but a grab-bag of genes may end up accounting for more managerial behaviors than we suspect.
Never have so many labored for so long to say so little Warren Bennis and Bert Nanus,Leaders: the Strategies for Change
Above-average intelligence, drive, a reasonable level of mental and emotional health, and integrity are the characteristics necessary for leadership.
Most of what is said about leadership derives from one of two views: leadership as trait or leadership as behavior.
The first view – leadership as trait – can be compared to the notion of beauty: you either have it or you don’t. Like beauty, it is hard to define but you know it when we see it. According to this perspective, you may be born with the potential for leadership, but only experience will bring it out.
The second view – leadership as behavior – can be compared to good manners: they can be acquired through learning and practice. You get better at it over time and, after a while, it becomes second nature, so that you are no longer aware of it even though to others it seems effortless.
Experience is important to both views: in one it is needed to bring out the potential; in the other, it is needed to make it habitual through practice. But that is the only similarity.
If leadership is a trait, those who do not have “it” need not apply for leadership positions. The problem with this is that we do not yet know how to measure it, however, this has not prevented researchers from trying. Possibly the best researched and the least popular is the theory developed by Elliott Jaques. His work has the unique distinction among theories of leadership of being rooted in some of the world’s largest longitudinal studies spanning more than 50 years while also being rooted because people simply hate the findings.
The Jaques model (known as Stratified Systems Theory) essentially suggests that we are born with clear limitations on how far up the leadership tree we will go. Lack of developmental experience may hold us back, but no amount of experience will make us go further than our natural propensity allows. Jaques and his colleagues developed a process for measuring this limit so that we can know on whom to spend our leadership-development money.
Those judged not to be leadership material were rarely happy about this. The organisations that applied his ideas (Westpac and CRA were big fans 10 years ago) soon had minor staff rebellions on their hands, and even those who had “for promotion” stamped on their foreheads confessed a dislike of the idea. The ides of Jaques have languished, but, unlike almost any other theorist, he can actually point to the research that backs his ideas.
The social egalitarianism conundrum
There are some softer versions of the “leadership as trait” perspective, most of which revolve around the idea that some people are better suited to leadership than others. Social egalitarianism demands that the basic notion be soft-soaped so as not to upset people too much. Suitability is therefore judged on a bundle of criteria, of which the psychological trait is but one.
For example, in selecting those who are to undergo leadership development, the talk is blandly about potential, suitability and aptitude. In reality, all this is code for “trait”, even where the methods for assessing whether an individual has it are rather dubious. The preferred method is a combination of task-based tests (for example, completing an in-basket exercise involving decisions that leaders might make) and psychometric tests (for example, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or 16PF).
The problem with this approach is that the task tests simply measure existing abilities; only the psychometric tests are predictive. The question is, what do they predict? The claim is generally made that we know the psychological characteristics that make a person suitable for leadership, but that claim is questionable. Much of the research aimed at validating various leadership models based on psychological tests took place in the armed forces. The resultant leadership model is therefore typically skewed towards such things as action-orientation or emotional resilience. Good stuff if you are a general leading the troops into battle, but of questionable relevance to running organisations such as schools, shops, and factories.
In the end, the psych-based stuff is still highly selective. You are in or you are not. Which brings us back to the egalitarian problem. And it explains why the media love to poke fun at the use of psychometric tests in recruitment and promotion. Such use inevitably smacks of preference and advantage. Never mind that most instances are carefully validated, and that this is the nearest thing to a predictive tool we have for what people are able to do in what are, after all, highly selective leadership positions. Leadership is fundamentally an elitist notion.
The other approach – leadership as behavior – is also problematic, as we do not know which behaviors are those of a leader. So, into the breach between need and ignorance has stepped the consulting industry with everything from personal coaching to packaged leadership training.
The covey phenomenon
Meeting the need for leadership development is a big business. One of the great examples is the Stephen Covey phenomenon. It is hard to describe this without swooning at the sheer size and audacity of what has become an industry in its own right. Based on the two biggest-selling leadership books of all time (Principle Centred Leadership and, especially, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People), Covey has expanded his eclectic leadership and self-management theories in all directions (do you have your copy yet of How to Develop a Family Mission Statement?).
Programs based on the books are the foundation for a global franchised operation that is second to none in the training industry. Not bad for something that started from the simplest of ideas: read everything ever written about leadership and boil it down to a handful of principles and behaviors. Hype alone cannot account for this success. Talk to any of Covey’s “converts” and you will see that his stuff touches a deep nerve.
Maybe what Covey has done is to make leadership (and its rewards) seem accessible to all who want it. Just do the things leaders do and you too will be one. Do first things first, sharpen your saw, and you are halfway to success. Ignore the gnawing doubt that you are not good enough, and just do it.
It is hard to judge what effect this is having in the workplace. Simply buying the books may comfort some people that they are doing something about their leadership-development needs. Those who actually read them may take what is largely sensible advice and put it into practice.
But does today’s workforce show more highly developed leadership capabilities? And how do you measure this anyway? One attempt to make it all more measurable arose out of the idea that if you want to know about leadership ask the followers. After all, it is a bit hard having one without the other. Most of these approaches now go under the name of “360-degree feedback”. That is, subordinates (along with peers and bosses) provide feedback as to how well you are doing what leaders do.
Like many good ideas in management, this was immediately packaged and sold by every two-bit consultant in town, often flogging “proprietary” measurement tools that they knocked up in their spare time. The behaviors used in framing the questions were often arbitrary and unvalidated. Yet many organisations have integrated these tools into their human-resources procedures. It has been built into promotion, remuneration, job rotation, training, and termination of employment.
Possibly the best is the “Leadership Practices Inventory” developed by James Kouzis and Barry Posner in the 1980s. It came from extensive research and was based largely on people’s observations. It neatly sidesteps the issue of “what is leadership?” and focuses on “what leaders do”. The findings are modest, pointing largely to the things that good leaders do a bit more of than those who are mere bosses. It does not identify behaviors unique to good leadership, but points out behaviors that, if exercised more often, should make people better leaders. They describe their approach in The Leadership Challenge.
Find out for yourself
If, after all this, you do want to read something sensible about leadership itself, John Kotter’s writings provide an elegant introduction. Kotter casts the distinction between leadership and management in terms of “systems of action”. That is, they are distinct but complementary. In contrasting the two, Kotter makes a range of observations without falling into the trap of building elaborate models. These include:
- Most businesses are over-managed and under-led.
- Management is about coping with complexity; leadership is about coping with change.
- Leadership complements management; it does not replace it.
(From “What leaders really do” by John Kotter, Harvard Business Review, May-June, 1990.)
From the solid and respectable base of Kotter, it is easy to fan out in various directions. If the psychopathology of leadership interests you (that is, the thin line that separates the leader from the megalomaniac), try M.F.R. Kets De Vries. If you see leadership as a relationship challenge as much as as an action challenge, try the gentle observations of Max Depree (for example, Leadership is an Art). If you see leadership as a mantle of responsibility, try Peter R. Block’s Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest.
If you like to play it by numbers, try:
- Five Steps to Making Disciples (Bright and Whims, eds).
- Seven Secrets of Exceptional Leadership (Hegarty and Nelson).
- The Eight Laws of Leadership: Making Extraordinary Leaders Out of Ordinary Believers (E. Towns).
- The Nine Natural Laws of Leadership (W. Blank).
Or if you are in a hurry, you could try 30 Days to Confident Leadership (B. Biehl).
None of these books will help to settle the great debate of trait v. behavior. Lurking in the wings, though, are the rapid advances in genetics that threaten to upset a host of applecarts in the nature v. nurture debate. At every advance, nurture has retreated and nature has gained ground. No one has yet suggested that we will find a leadership gene, but a grab-bag of genes may end up accounting for more managerial behaviors than we suspect.
No doubt market forces will prevail, and perhaps one day we will be able to buy leadership in injectable form. Which leaves the conundrum: what do we do when we are all leaders?
Bubble, bubble, toil & trouble
The search for the elements of leadership is dominated by attempts to boil a leader down, extract the essence, bottle it and sell it to the highest bidder
by david james
“Leader: A person whose enormous flaws are exceeded only by the fit of his or her even more enormous abilities with the needs of the future.”
Eileen Shapiro, Fad Surfing in the Boardroom
Are leaders born, or can they be trained? The question is asked almost obsessively in the analysis of leadership. Harvard University management academic John Kotter, for example, achieved international recognition by claiming that leadership can be taught. Leadership, he said, in A Force for Change, the book that established him, “does not produce order and consistency, it produces movement”. Whereas management has been around for 100 years, leadership is as old as civilisation, Kotter opined.
“If you have too much strong management without leadership, an organisation can become bureaucratic and stifling. If you have strong leadership without much management, an organisation can become messianic and cult-like, producing change for change’s sake.”
The leadership list
Kotter proposed drive, above-average intelligence, a reasonable level of mental and emotional health, and integrity as the essentials of leadership. It is a surprisingly mundane list, however the key is the combination. “Despite the plainness of the key attributes, remarkably few people share all four.”
Kotter’s approach, in various guises, has been replicated by legions of management advisers. Leadership is a lucrative area of research and consultancy because it is typically directed at senior executives, and it is senior executives who pay the bills.
The list of what makes a suitable leader varies, and many psychological models are brought to bear on the subject: from neuro-linguistic programming to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to Jungian theories, to more homey “speak with your heart” psychological advice. But the basic method remains the same: identify the characteristics of good leaders, then advise senior executives on how they can replicate the identikit. Because most organisational leaders have a tendency to narcissism, there is usually a keen audience.
The problem is that the approach is deeply flawed, if not downright nonsensical. For one thing, a key feature of what we call leadership is the creation of something new, often something that has not been thought of before. When we say that someone is “showing leadership qualities” it means they are doing something original. So it cannot be distilled as a typical leadership characteristic, because it is unique. It is possible to provide general descriptions – such as “showing vision” or “displaying the courage to try something different” – but this is like saying that Vincent Van Gogh painted with bright colors. It may be true, but it is scarcely helpful.
The reductionist rub
This is what is often termed the “reductionist” problem: reducing human beings to core elements does not give an accurate picture of what makes them unique or even lends them their distinctive characteristics. At best, it is extremely basic information; at worst it is deceptive and misleading – a little like saying that human resources are mostly water and some trace elements and therefore of little commercial value.
Because humans have self-consciousness and intentions, they cannot be reduced to essential parts (because the parts do not have self-consciousness or intentions). This problem is especially difficult with leaders, who tend to be highly self-conscious and have fierce intentions (that is, strong wills). Saying that Napoleon was a strong leader because he had integrity, above-average intelligence, mental health and ambition (even if it were true) is not far from saying he was a great military leader because he had black hair and his wife’s name began with “J”.
Underlying this Meccano-like approach to the subject of leadership is an obsession with a “Darwinian” analysis of human characteristics. We live in an age in which beliefs about Darwin’s ideas (as opposed to what his ideas actually were) dominate the way we think. Everything that happens in life must be seen as either “genetic” or “conditioned”.
Steven Rose, author of Alas, Poor Darwin, writes: “Darwinian and evolutionary have become adjectives to attach to almost anything. Not only do we have evolutionary biology, medicine, psychology and psychiatry; there is evolutionary economics and sociology. The term is employed to explain processes as seemingly varied as the origin of the universe, the expansion of companies on the internet and the growth and competition of rival scientific theories. Darwinian methods are supposed to underlie everything from computer technology to the processes of human thought.”
To this list can be added leadership studies. It is worth noting what Darwin did not explain. He never offered a plausible explanation of why human beings are self-conscious, largely because there is no way of locating self-consciousness in a physical entity. As the neuro-physiologist Charles Sherrington commented in 1954: “Mind, for anything perception can compose, goes in our spatial world more ghostly than a ghost. Invisible, intangible, it is a thing not even of outline, it is not a thing.”
In short, the components of the Darwinian dialectic – genetics and conditioning – are both physical. They cannot account for mental characteristics. It may be possible to correlate certain brain functions with mental activities, certain genetic tendencies with behaviors. But this does not explain their origin or account for their true nature, it simply says that there is a physical correlative of a mental state. Yet, in seeking to understand the psychology of leadership, management analysts have persisted with just such a Darwinian dialectic.
Worse for the Darwin myth-makers, it now seems that one of the great biologist’s central tenets, that species evolve through a process of random selection over millennia, is not supported by the evidence. This was always an absurd claim when there were scientists clearly manipulating genes in the laboratory in a way that is self-evidently not random; and, for that matter, non-random genetic manipulation has been conducted in agriculture and animal husbandry for centuries.
But now the evidence suggests that randomness was never a feature of evolution. Craig Venter, chief executive of Celera Genomics, was responsible for the mapping of the human genome. He says adaptations are coded into genes. So, even if genetics could explain self-consciousness, there is a greater problem: what is the origin of the genetic code that brings about change? If it is not natural accident, then what is it?
The logical outcome of this insight for leadership studies is that leadership is a genetic code: that there is a “leadership gene”. This may sound ridiculous, but it is no less absurd than what is routinely done in leadership studies as authors try to answer the question “is it innate or is it learned?” by seeking to isolate the vital statistics of leadership.
Leave darwin to science
If the quasi-Darwinist obsession of leadership studies threatens to take the subject into a cul-de-sac, what should be done instead? A focus on individual distinctiveness is a good place to start. It is the uniqueness of leaders that constitutes their style and provides the source of their effect. Consider some of the high-profile leaders in Australia. Kerry Packer is renowned for creating fear among employees and enemies alike: an image no doubt cultivated, but also one that fits his personality. Rupert Murdoch, probably Australia’s most global business leader, is reputed to be at once ruthless, extraordinarily engaging and possessed of an underdog mentality. There is no point trying to copy this profile; it emerges from his unique character.
Compare this with the knockabout egocentricity of Dick Smith, the slightly pained decency of John Howard, the cheerful brusqueness of Mark Taylor, the empathic toughness of Jenny George, and it becomes clear that what matters is difference, not similarity. Ask not “What are the elements of leadership, and can they be learned?” but “What are the important differences in each individual, and how can they be developed?”
It also helps to show that followers decide whom they will follow; leaders cannot do it for them. The appetite for power is a prerequisite, but leaders ultimately depend on being followed. A level of assent is vital. This is largely a function of the leaders ability to exhibit self-belief. Many leaders have flawed personalities, and some are pathological, but most have a level of conviction that is infectious. This may be because followers share the belief, and often leaders of businesses are adept at creating such messianic zeal in employees. But just as often it is for a less exalted reason: conviction can be entertaining. Leaders who behave badly, or have egregious flaws, or who engage in extreme follies, can nevertheless have a mesmeric effect because they are able to transform the workplace into a theatre.
It goes a long way to explaining the success of the unethical and duplicitous British media magnate, Robert Maxwell, who was, above all, entertaining. It explains failed entrepreneurs Alan Bond and Christopher Skase, who created excellent theatre. Even immensely solid leaders such as Stan Wallis, the long-time head of Amcor and now chairman of Coles Myer, create a form of theatre: that of the wise leader of extensive experience.
Because few followers get the opportunity to get to know leaders personally, a leader’s theatre tends to be more important. And what matters in theatre is character, individuality.
This will not stop consultants trying to distil the qualities of leadership and retail them to heads of enterprises. But the answers are more likely to lie with greater self-knowledge.