It was once popular, some years after a best-selling management book highlighted specific companies as exemplars of this or that fad, to reassess those businesses and to delight perversely in how far the putatively mighty had fallen. It’s not always fair to blame the companies per se – perhaps new managers had proven inept or had strayed from a decent methodology, or more fundamentally negative influences had washed over the outfits from the markets or government.
But for all that, it can be instructive to run down the rolls of champions touted as winners for their expression of this or that management philosophy, and to see to what dire straits – or even oblivion – so many of them have tumbled. What does that say about the management models those companies were used as the poster children for?
It’s a fair question – and not just of management fads in general, but of arguably the most specious one of all: the notion of individual leadership in modern organizations, which continues to be propounded with unflagging enthusiasm by every corner of the modern leadership movement (MLM).
Countless books have been and are published on this topic. And each one is also typically garnished with numerous champions intended to illustrate one or another tenet of the particular “philosophy” on display.
Whatever trait, characteristic, style, personality type, or the like is being promoted, a particular individual will be presented as an illustration, and his or her accomplishments will be rehearsed and cast as expressions of the topic at hand. But just as with the more general management model books, there are at least two problems with this approach.
First, the subsequent review can be quite instructive. Ask yourself: where are all these leaders, or their reputations, today? What has happened to, or has been learned about, those who had been deemed such superlative specimens of individual leadership as to be showcased as special models of it? Inevitably, many of them have stumbled from their pedestals, sometimes spectacularly – some have even been convicted of criminal activity.
Their use in such books is an inescapable device for attempting to prove a point. That so many of them have subsequently turned out to have feet of clay is actually a more trenchant indictment of the idea of individual leadership in organizations which they were used to exemplify than that of the fallen companies is of the various management theories they were associated with.
But the second problem is no less damning. And that is the internal incoherence of the manner in which these individuals are offered as “proofs” of the nature and importance of individual leadership.
The most relentlessly risible example of this is the tendency to use a different “leader” to illustrate each of a leadership philosophy’s portfolio of traits or styles. I cannot recall ever reading such a book in which it wasn’t painfully obvious that the individual being touted as the very personification of one “vital” leadership trait also happened to be the antithesis of one or more of the others, equally identified as essential ingredients of leadership, in the same book.
Another aspect of this form of presentation of the leadership argument is that the persons selected for display as having the desired characteristic or personality type obviously can also be presented as having been extraordinarily successful. The connection between the alleged expressions of leadership and results is assumed to be causative, or is artfully argued to be so.
However, at least three things are left out of these “analyses.” First, the causative relationship is not proved – merely persuasive asserted. Second, in many of these relationships it can seem quite possible to someone who isn’t under the influence of the Kool-Aid that the causation has been reversed; that the business success achieved for who-knows-what reason has convinced – or, rather, deluded - the “leader” of his or her individual essentialness and invincibility.
Third, these presentations overlook the vast numbers of perfectly similar people in similar positions in similar organizations who have not seen the results imputed to the “leadership” of those highlighted in these books for our supposed edification.
In this context it is worthwhile to recall Warren Buffet’s admonishment that a good business can survive bad management. The problem is that a really good business can actually fool both bad management and its observers into the erroneous belief that the managers are not merely good, but that they are indeed exemplars of leadership.
Buffet’s corollary that good management cannot rescue a bad business should be borne in mind when we read books ascribing everything to leadership. The truth is that the more inclined we are – or are persuaded by the MLM to believe – that their success is a function of our own exceptional characteristics, the more likely is the management of them to become de-linked from the fundamental realities upon which they truly depend. Or, to borrow another Buffet aphorism, when the tide goes out you’re likely to see the concept of leadership exposed for the disappointment it really is.
But in this, too, hope continues to triumph over experience. Eagerly as ever, we buy the books, attend the seminars, follow the scripts.
Rummage around in this stuff all you like, though. Wade through all the stupendous quantity of material that continues to issue forth on the subject. When all is said and done, you’ll find there’s no pony in there.
Today’s tip: A site that periodically offers general management advice recently posted a list of blogs published by business professors – an interesting idea. This one is headed most appropriately by Professor Bob Sutton’s Work Matters. Take a look – you’ll surely find much of interest you’ll want to subscribe to.
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