We’ve covered a lot of ground over the past several years in these pages. We’ve talked about everything from free-market capitalism to history – even physics. But at bottom, it all has been about management and leadership; in particular, how the former is a proper and honorable individual undertaking in an organization, and how the latter is, not to put to fine a point on it, neither.
Easily among the most disagreeable aspects of the generally disagreeable concept of exceptional individual leadership is the noxious notion of “followership.” When the modern leadership movement’s supporters find even themselves waxing too reverential about the singular qualities of their hopes and dreams, when they realize that there may be a problem with their spending so much time discussing the concept in isolation; they look about for something to tie this great being to, something that can appear to give it purpose and meaning.
Among the most dangerous of the many troubling features of the modern leadership movement’s prescriptions is its cultivation of the idea that leadership, at its best, is expressed by individuals so possessed of the leadership persona that they simply infect “followers” with the impulse to follow them. This is most often characterized as charismatic leadership, and it retains a strong place in writing and teaching about individual leadership to the present day.
In the course of our current review of the reasons to reject the concept of individual leadership as it is taught by its modern proponents, it is worth addressing the unavoidable fact that there really are some leaders around. In the last two posts, we looked at why a widely advocated leadership type is, at best, essentially irrelevant to organizational purpose and, at the sadly common worst, is actively destructive of it.
In the most recent post in this current series on the fallacy of individual leadership, we noted that, among the types of leadership we seem to genuinely see in organizations, there is at least one that is, more or less in fact, both organizationally relevant and valid. Valid, because this type has the legal and moral right to give expression to personal leadership in the organization with no concern for violation of fiduciary duty (this is a real and fundamental problem with the modern concept of individual leadership, which we will discuss later in this series). Organizationally relevant, because it does indeed serve as the basis for the formation and operation of the organization.
As we’ve seen, the form of more-or-less genuine individual leadership most likely to be identified at the top of an organization is to be discovered in the founder/owner. As we’ve also seen, this does nothing to support the wholly misplaced lessons of the modern leadership movement, since these “leaders” are not products of external education, but of internal instincts. As for leadership and entrepreneurship, it doesn’t support their conflation either because the ones who succeed to the point of attracting notice are a miniscule proportion of those who make the effort, and those who display what is interpreted as leadership are a smaller subset still.
Before returning to the main topics in our current discussion of the problems with the prescriptions of the modern leadership movement (MLM), we’re going to take a brief look at two more types of what are generally regarded as genuine examples of “leadership” in organizations.
Some years ago there was a horrific crash during training maneuvers by a US Air Force precision flying team. All four aircraft in the group failed to pull up from a steep dive, and piled directly into the desert floor. The official statement blamed a mechanical malfunction in the lead aircraft, but the general view among military pilots seemed to revolve around a sort of human error peculiar to this special type of formation flying.
We have seen, since the opening of the current series on the problems with the notion of individual leadership in organizations, that the most fundamental of them is that such leadership is inescapably not about those organizations – it is about the purportedly peerless and vital qualities of those putative leaders. Whatever after-thoughts or carefully contrived qualifications are thrown at the topic, there is no avoiding the truth about individual leadership as “discovered” and promoted by the modern leadership movement (MLM): it is about relationships with individuals who exhibit the described leadership – it is only peripherally, if at all, about the work at hand, from which, in any event, it most decidedly does not arise.
Have you ever noticed that when people talk about leadership, the unspoken but overpowering assumption is that it is a positive and constructive force? Have you ever questioned that presumed relationship? If you have, what sort of reaction did you get?
It was once popular, some years after a best-selling management book highlighted specific companies as exemplars of this or that fad, to reassess those businesses and to delight perversely in how far the putatively mighty had fallen. It’s not always fair to blame the companies per se – perhaps new managers had proven inept or had strayed from a decent methodology, or more fundamentally negative influences had washed over the outfits from the markets or government.
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.
The purpose of this current discussion is to identify the key and fundamental problems with the notion of individual leadership in modern organizations as it is professed and propounded by the modern leadership movement (MLM); to outline the case against this misguided concept. Many of these have been addressed to one extent or another, as well, in other discussions on these pages.
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.
We come, now, then, to an element in this long anti-leadership argument that stands out as among the most noxious: the MLM-style leadership development programs essentially without exception – and, indeed, basically inescapably – encourage potential acolytes to develop these traits and abilities strictly in order to enhance an exclusively personal power and influence.
Have you ever had a boss that clearly had his (or her, of course) act together? He seemed to have all the answers, could grasp the core issue of a problem and resolve it on the fly, and understood every aspect of the business from everyone’s perspective – employees, vendors, customers, even prospects.
The modern leadership movement (MLM) works hard to promote the theory that there is a universal model of leadership, if you will, that unites the standard concept of leadership with the quantum expression of it in particular assignments. Moreover, key to the sustainability of this movement is the consistently proffered argument that mastery of the standard, abstract form of individual leadership must first be attained; only then can it be applied at the practical level.
When a field of “knowledge” is addressed by “scientists” or, at least, by professed students of that field, it is only fair that we should be able to expect a few things to emerge from their attentions.
We have argued extensively that the modern leadership movement-marketed (MLM) concept of individual leadership in organizations is not merely misplaced, but that it in fact is . . .
The concept of individual leadership and its role in organizations, as promoted by the Modern Leadership Movement (MLM), is, as we have seen, anything from a merely distracting to an outright destructive force. But there is a particularly disturbing feature of it that has a worrying tendency to drive it toward the latter result.
Let’s review. Here’s the original list of issues we decided to examine at the beginning of this series . . .
In the course of this current series, we have seen that the general concept of individual leadership in organizations suffers from a debilitatingly long list of failures. It lacks system, it defies definition, it is unable to develop practitioners or to predict outcomes . . .
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.
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