This week I would like to offer a short series of items about some of the concepts inherent in the widely promoted – and, it must be said, subscribed – modern notions of leadership. The idea that there is such a thing as a distinct leadership personality is based on or accompanied by several presumptions . . .
One of the principal motives for attempting to identify and emulate the personal characteristics of leaders is the hope that we will thus be transformed into leaders, ourselves. There are at least two problems with this notion, but we’ll just briefly cover one of them, today: Most of us are able to strengthen – perhaps even to discover – current personality characteristics. But we cannot develop them anew.
Yesterday, we covered a key stumbling-block to the notion that there is value (or, even, validity) in developing and attempting to emulate lists of leadership characteristics. Today we’ll cover what is perhaps the most troubling aspect of such efforts: They are inwardly focused, without meaningful reference to the work, and to the work habits and mastery of tasks that get it done. Peter Drucker said, in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, that management (see review here) exists “only in contemplation of performance.” But other than “technical competence” and the like, how many items on the leadership lists you’ve seen really contemplate the work to be done?
We’ve spent the last couple of days talking about two distinct problems with the use of leadership characteristics lists to develop leaders. We noted that when advocates of superlative individual leadership attempt to raise the leadership persona to a level of self-referential virtue, they may actually be inadvertently promoting a harmful cult centered on personal loyalty, rather than the pursuit of organizational aims. But, of course, we persist in trying to sort out this fundamentally flawed premise. So, today, we’ll briefly cover a third problem: the notion that we can use such lists of traits to identify people as (or as not) leaders, and safely assign or promote them on that basis.
Today we will be addressing the problem with the idea that leaders bring unique talents to positions of authority in organizations. It offers a number of avenues of attack, but we’re going to go right up the middle, and assault the very idea that organizations should place themselves in thrall to a special class of “leaders.”
The prescriptions of the modern leadership movement are shot through with suggestions that, because the leader they describe is possessed of such extraordinary and vital qualities, it is equally vital that those qualities be given extraordinary freedom of action. That is, such rare personages, at the very vanguard of evolution, must not be constrained by the proletarian standards of accountability designed for lesser beings. Indeed, some gurus in the movement go so far as to argue that the very organization should be structured in such a way as to give the most complete, unimpeded expression to the “musings” of the great leader at the top.
We’ve spent some time over the past few days talking about the leadership persona promoted by the modern school of gurus coopting the topic. In the course of this, we’ve noted the striking contrast between what many of these thinkers teach, and what repeated research findings tell us, about leadership characteristics. We posed the idea of such traits to our own common-sense test. And then we considered the implications of all of this on leadership development. The question arises, though, that many people will genuinely dispute that the leaders they know aren’t like, and have not taken their inspiration from, the prescriptions offered by this movement. Others will even insist that the very concept of leadership they recognize doesn’t resemble what is presented by those who promote its expression by specially qualified individuals.
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