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Putting leadership in its place

In this series we’ve attempted to make the case for why managers should abandon the essentially irrelevant (to say the least) concept of individual leadership.

As we’ve discussed, whatever version you choose of the modern leadership movement’s (MLM) teachings, you will find that it is essentially meaningless without stressing the singular, exceptional status of the leader. This in turn necessitates according him or her dedicated and, certainly, submissive “followership” which is intended to give expression to the unique leadership capabilities that have been stipulated to exist in the person of the leader. That distinctly disturbing notion, as we’ve seen, actually applies all around this mysteriously sacrosanct personage – to juniors, peers, and even seniors.

So, there really is no way to award the status of “leader,” as defined by the MLM, without also assigning to that leader some extraordinary degree of imperviousness to, even outright disconnection from, accountability.

But the business world is slowly beginning to realize that this hasn’t been working out especially well. For decades organizational life – commercial, government, not-for-profit – has been plagued with erratic performance by stupendously self-serving executives. They take credit for externally beneficial influences; evade blame for their own egregious mistakes; confuse and befuddle their organizations, vendors, and customers; damage the property of their shareholders and sometimes even the wider community’s confidence in the necessary underpinnings of commerce. Even when they manage to avoid – or evade – any obvious trouble, many of these “leaders,” having sincerely (albeit naively) bought in to the hype about themselves, also suffer personally from the impossible expectations this role places in them.

And that’s not all. Various of those swept up into the rigidly policed orbits of “followership” have found that they cannot long abide being rendered so ineffective and inconsequential in a culture where their submission to the leadership cult (being “team players”) is more valued than their ability to contribute. Directors as well are increasingly taken to task for allowing themselves to be suborned into being the spokespersons for rather than the supervisors of their CEOs. Famously, shareholders are revolting.

Slowly but surely, the struggle over power and privilege – legal, practical, and moral – in organizations is reigniting and new voices are surfacing. While the jargon is difficult to jettison, the depiction of the role of “leaders” is beginning to more properly reflect the tasks of managers directing and supporting the work of motivated, skilled, creative employees and collaborators. Directors are being held, via one device or another, to their duty to do due diligence in both the selection and the exercise of close supervision of their CEOs. Shareholders are finding and flocking to various investment mechanisms that hope to ensure that the divination and pursuit of their interests remain paramount.

The heretofore free ride for irresponsible rhetoric about leadership in organizations is beginning to attract long overdue skepticism. And, as noted, it is not just the particular concept of the “leader” that is being called in to question, but also the broader leadership construct built upon that by the MLM. The edifice is under assault from several quarters.

And, although it is indeed long overdue, it is most welcome and can only promise some good. We will, for now, leave the evolving debate to its own devices.

Here, it’s well past time as well to begin a closer examination of how we might take up our genuine burdens, to assume our real-world responsibilities – to put leadership in its place and to set ourselves to our actual work.

That will be up for discussion presently. See you soon!

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