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Looking for leadership

Some years ago a game was used to identify the presence and dynamism of leaders. Groups were randomly organized, then each was tasked with building a tower out of Tinkertoys. The towers had to be both sturdy and tall, and time was sufficiently restricted to make either accomplishment difficult. Roles within the groups were not pre-assigned, but were left to the members to sort out.

There were two run-throughs, one allowing speech followed by one allowing only gestures. Each group identified its leader based on the roles that members took or acceded to during the exercise. Then the groups voted on the virtues of all the towers – height and stability – thus supposedly identifying the quality of the leadership expressed by each group leader.

This, like many such experiments, confuses leadership – particularly as described by the modern leadership movement (MLM) – with command. Taking charge of a situation – especially one like that posited in the exercise which shares characteristics with a crisis – is fundamentally different than expressing the visionary, charismatic, empowering, lofty sorts of leadership celebrated and promised by the MLM and obligingly sought by the rest of us.

In its defense, though, this exercise was at once a good deal more fun yet no more juvenile than any of the more “sophisticated” measures that promise to identify the presence of or potential for leadership. Moreover, it was probably every bit as effective, even though it didn’t really identify leadership at all.

And that’s probably one of the most dispiritingly fascinating problems with the ever-peculiar notion of individual leadership in modern organizations. For all the blather whipped up about the topic over the past few decades, we can still predict neither the presence of leaders for assignment nor its potential in individuals for development.

But, really, why should we be able to do that? After all, as we have seen repeatedly, we really don’t even know what it is.

Consider the issue from the other direction: if it were true that we knew what leadership is and how to identify it (or its potential for development), then there surely would be plenty of evidence for the presence of that ability. But where is it? Where are those leaders? And where are the inspired, fulfilled, empowered, happy “followers” that clamor merrily after them?

Are they in our businesses? In our non-profits or governments? In the U.S. or elsewhere in the world? Is that what you see?

Of course it’s not. So why do we keep kidding ourselves about this?

And we do keep kidding ourselves – to our own detriment, as well as to that of our organizations. We’ll pick up the current discussion with that issue, next. See you then!

Today’s tips: Speaking of identifying what leadership is – not to mention where in our organizations it’s located, please ponder this excellent post on culture by Miki Saxon.

And speaking of not kidding ourselves, please see this list of recommended business books from Authentic Leadership. Everything about it, from its individual components to its general shared characteristics, is likely vastly better than what you’ve been encouraged to read lately.

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  1. Miki Saxon wrote:

    Hi Jim, thanks for the shout out; I’m glad you liked the post.

    For an example of true MLM leadership hard at work, one has to look no further than the 535 members of Congress, who all lay claim to the mantle. However, their assorted visions do make me wonder what they have been smoking.

    Monday, August 1, 2011 at 1:24 am | Permalink
  2. I see this model of leadership in our South African government election. Our people believe in solving current issue than preventing future issues, in this case solving poverty, employment and housing, but the results are futile. If only innovative people like Steve Job, who grasp what people want. Politics would be so much different than just all talk.

    Thursday, September 1, 2011 at 5:53 pm | Permalink
  3. Simon Cooper wrote:

    Well said. A lot of people confuse command skills with leadership. Command skills will often deliver results but are unlikely to create high levels of employee engagement.

    Saturday, October 8, 2011 at 4:06 pm | Permalink
  4. Aaron Drake wrote:

    I think people also associate leadership with a dominant personality type. Only a fraction of the population will have the personality to command. All personality types can learn leadership skills.

    This hang up on personality type also leaves out the issue of character, which is essential to good leadership.

    Great article!

    Thursday, February 9, 2012 at 2:09 am | Permalink

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