Sunday, 8 February 2009

Our dear leader

Look in any airport book shop in the business section right beside the 2 for 1 offer on Jordan’s latest autobiography, and a quick scan of the titles will make clear leadership is now a fundamental tenet of management thought.

According to the thousands of books on offer leadership amongst other things has “21 irrefutable laws” (why not 22?), is both a challenge and an art, has theories and is a practice, a habit and something every organiz(s!)ation MUST grow to survive.

My arse. For one thing the people with the biggest hard-on for leadership have typically been fascists, Hitler being one and Mussolini another. So there is clear scope for guilt by association here, I mean no one ever claimed business was a democracy.

You could cite Churchill as an alternative, except that would miss the point. What fascism illustrates is that with the right leadership rational processes and people can be driven towards irrational and immoral ends - leadership by itself is never enough. Instead, what Churchill’s career actually illustrates is that there are no irrefutable laws of leadership because Churchill was both a great wartime leader and an awful peace time prime minister. Rather than laws what made Churchill great was the interaction between his character and a specific set of events. Full stop.

That’s as maybe, said the HR person on the phone to the head hunter, but the job description for our great leader states he or she must have flexibility and adaptability as core competencies. ”Bollocks” said the head hunter. Well no she didn’t because she was on a doozy of a commission if she could attach herself to the right candidate, but she should have. In fact she should have reiterated the point made above about the attributes of leadership being context specific, including the need for flexibility and adaptability. To go back to the Churchill example one last time it was precisely his lack of flexibility that mattered during the Second World War (1).

So with circumstances unavoidably changing across and between organisations, and over time, it's blindingly obvious there is no such thing as one universally applicable set of great leadership behaviours, laws, habits etc.

If that’s the case then why is leadership so popular despite logic, history and commonsense all suggesting otherwise? I think the killer combination of laziness and self-interest provides a meaningful starting point.

You see much of leadership's appeal rests on it providing easy, palatable and at times plausible answers to difficult questions. Like why are we successful? Because we have a great leader of course! And if you're minded to accept that kind of mince then you can fool yourself that success is easy to achieve, all it takes is the recruitment of a great leader. Even better it justifies paying the existing executive shed loads of money, which makes executives very happy. And if they’re happy everyone whose organisational fortunes depend on keeping them happy is happy. That’s not all, when great leaders turn out to be not so great leadership provides a readymade and acceptable excuse for failure i.e. it’s the leader’s fault not mine.

In these circumstances replacing one great leader with another is an easy way of convincing everyone you’re deadly serious about sorting things out. Your business makes technologically obsolete products, is selling into a shrinking market or has an outmoded IT infrastructure? Feck that, we're on the phone to an executive head hunter who will find us a new great leader with enough bullet points, power points and strategies to sort everything out.

And finally, leadership is vague enough to justify anything. This is more important than you’d think because organisations after all are hierarchical structures predicated on the unequal division of resources and authority. So when someone asks why is that halfwit in charge of a department he doesn’t have a clue about it, you can reply “stop sweating the small stuff geek boy and check out his leadership credentials”. Which is a pity because an attachment to leadership is one of the clearest signs of hubris in business and a fundamental risk. For one thing it means an organisation is buying into a stupid concept, for another it means by definition all the stuff that actually gets done to generate profits is being taken for granted. And finally (the risk bit),it shifts attention away from maintaining technical/professional standards towards negotiating acceptable outcomes; every major decision gets assessed on the basis of does the leader like it not is it legal, practical, stupid, etc.

So a fixation with leadership makes sense more as a political than a business imperative, which is fair enough given the extent to which organisational politics define business life. But, if a key strand in management thought is geared to legitimising the existing executive status quo, avoiding any realistic analysis of corporate strengths/weaknesses or developing meaningful strategies for delivering success, where does that leave shareholders (and employees)?

(1) No way Churchill would have passed a competency based interview. So Mr Churchill can you please tell us about a time when you altered your plans in response to key stakeholder concerns? Describe the situation, what you did and what the outcome was - “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering, etc., etc.". Yes, thank you Mr Churchill, we'll be in touch.

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