“Leadership–It’s a System Not a Person”
Daedalus, Summer 2016
By now it should be apparent I rarely seek information where everyone else does. I don’t even really look for it. I just tend to stumble across things and find a use for them later.
That’s certainly the case with the Summer 2016 issue of Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. In what has to be one of the more fortuitous publishing coincidences–especially given the timelines of academic publishing–this issue is focused on the subject of political leadership.
That couldn’t be more important right now. So as with the Hofstadter piece a few months back, I plan to write about individual papers presented in the issue. I don’t want to insult anyone but I think it bears noting that Daedalus is a peer-reviewed journal. That supposedly means it has been through a more rigorous editorial process than a magazine article. Hence the terminology: journals publish papers, not articles, although, as we saw with Hofstadter, magazines sometimes publish papers.
This time our author, Barbara Kellerman, is a faculty member at the John F. Kennedy School of Government of Harvard University where she launched the Center for Public Leadership. She should also be known to readers of the business press since she is a quotable, go-to expert on the subject of leadership. So we should pay attention when she suggests we have a problem.
Here’s Kellerman near the outset: “…I argue that the [leadership] industry’s obsession with single individuals, with leaders or would be leaders at the expense of other elements that similarly pertain, is as misleading as it is misguided.” (p. 85)
Ouch. Yet it’s about what I’d expect from the author of a book entitled ‘The End of Leadership.‘ Let’s not take her, or my, word for it, though. Let’s view some data, courtesy of my friends at Google. Here’s a nifty nGram chart of two terms I think we can all agree are associated with leadership training:
At first blush it does seem that the use of these terms is a post WWII phenomena that gathers speed in the final third of the 20th century. That aligns with Kellerman’s observation that this $50 billion/year industry (p. 83) started up forty or so years ago. (p. 84, p. 88). The resulting growth curves would make any businessperson proud.
Now let’s add the more general term leadership and take a longer term view of where those terms fit in:
Kellerman said as much, noting that “…our interest in leadership stretches back across human history.” (p. 85) She draws examples all the way back to Plato. While I agree with her, I’d be as comfortable observing that interest grows along with modern economic forms.
So we spend all this money year in and year out. And what do we get?
“…some parallel truths: that leaders of every stripe are in disrepute; that the tireless teaching of leadership has brought us no closer to leadership nirvana than we were previously; that we do not have much better an idea how to grow good leaders, or at least slow bad leaders, than we did one hundred or even one thousand years ago; that the context is changing in ways that leaders seem unwilling or unable to fully grasp; that followers have become, on the one hand, disappointed and disillusioned and, on the other, entitled, emboldened and empowered; and, lastly, that notwithstanding the enormous sums of money and time that have been poured into trying to teach people how to lead…the leadership industry seems not in any major, meaningful, or measurable way to have improved the human condition. (p. 85)
I used to believe the manner in which the value of advertising and marketing were questioned was unduly harsh. If I worked in the leadership industry and read this I’d have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning.
Funny thing is that the industry doesn’t even get the worst of it. As a set-up for the lengthy quote above she uses a close-to-home example of institutional preoccupation with leadership. By the time Kellerman is through quoting the cookie-cutter-like mission statements of Harvard’s various graduate schools–all of which include phraseology about developing leaders– there’s no place to hide and no self-respect possible for the architects of this intellectual scheme.
So what’s an advanced economy/society to do? You won’t find a prescriptive plan here but Hofstadter didn’t give us one either. What Kellerman proposes is thinking about leadership differently. Stop focusing solely on actors, she says, and pay equal attention to the followers and the context in which they exist.
Do that and the game changes from ready-made checklists and two-day off-site seminars to something more like three-dimensional chess. That piques my interest but may scare off a good many others.
Consider just one aspect. Kellerman offers a typology of five follower types even as she notes others have developed similar models with different categories. Here are her category labels, which I think are descriptive enough to give you a sense of how this works: isolates, bystanders, participants, activists and diehards.
Now remember that any group will contain a different admixture of types, each of which requires a different strategy and approach. Do you still think you’ll master this in that ‘training’ HR scheduled for next Thursday?
I haven’t even touched on context yet. The simplest way to illustrate that is to use the example presented in the paper: Mikhail Gorbachev. It wasn’t just that he understood the mix of followers and how to manage them, it was that he made maximal use of the circumstances he found himself in.
For me this fits that old saw about being “intuitively obvious to even the even the most casual observer.” At the end of the day I honestly believe a leader is a brand, a human being that stands for something and stands up for his or her people and principles. As with a strong brand the whole thing requires a bedrock foundation resting on trust.
And trust can’t be taught in a seminar of any length. It’s earned every day, little by little and can be squandered in a minute.
Leaders and would-be leaders should remember that, too.