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Pod people

As the modern leadership movement’s (MLM) many and various advocates compete for attention, we inevitably find ourselves being bombarded with simplistic insights, each one, its “discoverer” will argue, the very cornerstone of a brave new world that can be built only on its foundation.

As it happens, if you can dismiss the ludicrous promises made for many of these, what is left may still be useful to peruse, even thought-provoking and helpful.

Unfortunately, though, the intensity of our angst over how we each individually relate to the pseudo-vital subject of leadership can make it difficult to distinguish between the product and its packaging.

This is particularly so in the MLM – with its devastatingly misplaced focus on the uniquely special attributes of the individual. Leadership is what you are, they pontificate. What you are – if you are the right things – is leadership, they add with trivializing profundity.

An exceptionally unnerving quality can become embroiled in this unstable mixture when the advocates of a particular insight-based approach come to uncritically accept their own hype. They can then become dogmatic about it, almost fanatical. Even not-so-subtly intimidating.

A manager recently wrote me about just such a leadership sect, if you will. The group is a well-known leadership consultancy of international reach, and the beneficiary of explosive growth built on the back of a run-away best-selling book by the founder. This book presented the well-worn idea – but with spectacularly well-tuned spin in the telling – that there is an inseparable link between success and wisdom in one’s person and private life, and one’s business position and career.

This group had been hired by my correspondent’s organization to present its leadership training program to the outfit’s managers. It seems, though, that some disquiet was caused by the presenters’ almost glassy-eyed praise of the founding principles of the program philosophy. Evidently, it was even described to the attendees as something that would – indeed, that must – have a “spiritual” impact on them.

The last straw for my correspondent was when there appeared to develop real, personal pressure on the attendees to demonstrate their willingness to drink the Kool-Aid. It seems as though an inordinate amount of time was spent ensuring that each attendee had genuinely internalized – rather than merely stipulated to for the sake of the argument – the philosophical underpinnings of the program. Those that resisted drew unsettlingly focused attention, and it seemed as though the program would not progress until they capitulated.

At this point, the alarm bells sounding in this manager’s head succeeded in drowning out the liturgical droning of the acolytes. He left the multi-day workshop, which had been a requirement, and explained to his seniors why.

When you hear alarm bells yourself during any sort of presentation – especially a workshop like this one – always heed them. Try to determine what they might mean. And never let yourself be intimidated by those who want to rush you along into group-thinking lock-step with their positions without allowing you time for calm, clear deliberation. Get out of the hot-house and evaluate the comprehensiveness and consistency of the case presented yourself. Make your own decisions, and draw your own conclusions.

Certainly, don’t turn into a mindless “follower” of a “leadership” of this ilk. If you’re alert to the phenomenon, you’ll be surprised to find how much of this kind of “training” so dangerously fits this mold.


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  1. E. wrote:

    Your correspondent doesn’t sound like much of a team-player to me! 😉

    I would love to know who he was dealing with but I will venture a guess:


    In any case, you know my email address if you want to provide me a holiday gift which I promise not to share.

    Best to you and yours Jim. E.

    Monday, December 19, 2011 at 5:32 pm | Permalink
  2. Jim Stroup wrote:

    Hello E.

    My correspondent has some experience that makes him particularly alert to the sort of passive aggressive insistence sometimes found in such programs. I think it serves him well.

    I have noticed this sort of thing in the past myself, but have simply written it off as evidence of guileless and fully-indoctrinated presenters and yet more pointless required training. Things stand on their own merits or they don’t – the indoctrination methods employed by those who insist you stipulate to their hypothetical fundamentals before proceeding are usually more harmful than not to all concerned.

    It appears to me that my correspondent’s take on and approach to the situation are on the mark. That he chose not to submit to it, even if only bemusedly like I have on occasion, I think speaks well of him. His response, I should hope – though doubt – may have served as a useful heads-up to those making the contracting decisions for training providers like these. It should be useful for them to know that those decisions may be alienating rather than developing the careers, capabilities, and confidence in their empoyers of their managers.

    I suppose it should be said, though – and your comment provides a perfect setting for doing so – that “followers” of many belief-systems can often become more fundamentalist, if you will, than their “founders” – even to the point of developing beliefs and approaches for instilling them that might not even be recognized by the founder. Let’s hope that that’s the case in this instance.

    Your guesses: there are three of them, actually! And very interesting ones indeed. What part of the post brought them to mind for you?

    Thanks, as always, E., for the kindness of your visits and the astuteness of your comments. Hoping that others, like me, will continue to enjoy perusing the archives in your wonderful site while we await your return there, as well. Best to you and yours in the Holiday Season and the New Year.

    Tuesday, December 20, 2011 at 11:10 am | Permalink

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