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Lost in leaderland

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. The three most obvious and essential are:

  1. A systematic, coherent model of the field is developed.
  2. In connection with the above, the essential elements of the model are identifiable and their roles in the model clarified.
  3. In connection with both of the above, predictions about the future from the current state of the model or of its component elements can be made.

The key problem with the putative field of “leadership studies” is that none of these things exist – at least not in a form accepted generally by the body of “researchers” and “practitioners” in the field.

The numerous models proffered conflict with each other, and no one agrees – even to the extent merely of a plurality of observers – on one of them as dominant or most probably accurate.

Worse, virtually all of these models lack coherency – they are riddled with internal contradictions. These arise in a variety of ways in the systems that various people develop, but most obviously in their descriptions of the most essential element thereof: leaders. Experts gush reverently about the various characteristics exhibited by the “leaders” they have studied, ultimately offering a list of the key traits that extraordinary leaders tend to have.

But as it turns out, they might as well be speaking in tongues. No single exemplar of leadership in their menagerie seems capable of expressing all of those deemed essential to the definition. How can it be that traits deemed essential components of individual leadership are not all possessed by any of those promoted as leaders?

There is no brushing this aside. There is no pretending that leadership systems don’t rely on such indentifiers, that they are unreliable, and that many identified as leaders by these experts don’t merely lack but can even be perfectly frightening regarding their relation to one or more other of the “essential” components on any given list.

As a result, these models lack the ability to help us determine who actually performs what role with respect to leadership presently in our organizations. Following from that, neither can they help us predict who has the potential, and should be prepared, to perform these roles in the future.

Surely, then, this is not a genuine field of scientific investigation. Please don’t let anyone kid you otherwise.

It is really just talk. Enthusiastic, often fun, sometimes mysteriously flattering, but always fundamentally empty talk.

For all that, though, it is far from a benign influence. We’ll try to recap this aspect of the problem over the next few weeks.


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