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Losing track of leadership

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.

The individual leadership movement as it has been promoted for the last several decades has as a central feature the unaccountability of the leader.

Of course, it is never expressed that way. But it is an inevitable and essential result of the very concept of individual leadership of organizations, however that is promoted in whatever corner of the MLM.

Whatever aspect of leadership one or another sub-school of this movement propounds, it necessarily insists that the “leader” has it to a degree that is beyond the ken of the rest of us, and that we thus must resign ourselves (gleefully, of course, with the glassy-eyed enthusiasm of the true “follower) to this leader.

Be what it may – intelligence or integrity, vision or passion, focus or foresight – its proponents must argue that it is of vital import and that it is only possessed and can only be comprehended by the leader; it is the duty of the rest of us to do our dim-witted best to help the leader give expression to it.

It’s important to bear in mind that there is really little or no limit to this idea, neither in its direction nor its reach. It is not merely in “theoretical” explications that it can run to truly bizarre extremes – in practice it can be and too-often is allowed to run rampant for far too long. And why not? After all, it is not only employees who are expected to follow the leader, but directors on the board, the role of which – far from directing and supervising – is simply to use high-level business connections to facilitate the leader’s wishes.

Moreover, the nature of this “followership,” whether from above or below, is simply to “give expression to the musings of the leader” as one major figure in the MLM has none-too-delicately put the matter. To many, this extends even to redesigning the organization around the personality and leadership style of the leader.

The genuineness and seriousness of these problems have been dealt with previously in this series and elsewhere on these pages. What bears emphasis here is what they inevitably add up to: unaccountability.

By its very nature, then, the idea of the individual leader inescapably carries with it the notion that the very capabilities that make him or her a leader

  1. are essentially inaccessible and incomprehensible to the rest of us, and
  2. must nevertheless – indeed, for that very reason – be given full rein to be effective.

If we bear in mind that this abject followership applies both to juniors and directors, then we must acknowledge that the argument is being made by the MLM that we are not only to surrender our wills and our reason to this personage – but to do so on little more than faith. Moreover, we are expected to strive to give expression to the leader’s dictates simply because they emanate from him or her. Indeed, the possibility that we may not understand or agree with them is not even, precisely speaking, irrelevant – rather, that incomprehension is to be taken as direct evidence of the unapproachable preeminence of his or her leadership.

It is worth recalling, after such a remarkable set of assertions, that they are made by actual adults in influential positions of authority in academia, business, and the consulting industry. Moreover, they are uncritically subscribed to by many of the rest of us in our various capacities as employees, fellow managers, directors, vendors, customers, competitors – even shareholders.

But the time for accounting is approaching. We’ll see why soon.


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