WARNING: Leadership Literature May Be Hazardous to Your Career

One of the big obstacles most business people have to overcome is
the leadership literature. Books by well-known execs and most lectures,
courses and even media pronouncements about leadership should be

Here’s why. Mainstream leadership books, writers, the media, and even
studies tend to privilege and separate leaders from followers. Think
Jack Welch, Jon Kotter, CNN , Fox or MNBC and even Warren Bennis, and
you’ll understand what I’m saying. What these people preach is that real
leaders have a great deal of power and that leadership is about using
that power to achieve personal and organizational objectives. So leaders
today are viewed as either heroes or villains, elevated or blamed,
either the solution or the barrier to organizational success. Indeed,
95% of the population seems to believe that complex organizational
problems should be solved by the leaders themselves. Amusing, but
largely nonsense. It’s just not possible. 

If it’s true that leaders have all the power and followers are merely
their lackeys to get things done, well. . .  you can see the
consequences. On the one hand, some will do what they’re told—and
probably no more than that. And others, who don’t like what they’re
being told will gripe, complain and eventually sabotage. Plenty of
leaders, even in the old industrial world, are brought down by the
sabotage of their “passive” followers. That’s far more prevalent than
most think. If in contrast, leaders understand that they’re highly
dependent upon their followers, that their followers have a lot of
power, you can be damned certain that with a modicum of gray matter
they’ll treat their followers a lot differently. . . even as partners. 

It shouldn’t be a surprise that sabotage is prevalent in companies
like the old General Motors. My brother, a retired GM plant foreman,
recently described in colorful detail how subordinates got rid of
leaders who were control nuts. They had a number of execution strategies
in their toolkits. Workers would stage, one-by-one conversations with
HR, mixed with both truthful and false info. But, he went on, more often
than not, the workers would simply sabotage the objectives of their
boss. In both cases the higher-ups would move the person around a few
times until he got the message and left the firm. “There are,” my
brother went on to say, “limitations as to how much control any boss or
leader has. And that,” he said, “goes all the way to the top of the
organization.”  With flatter hierarchies, knowledge workers have even
more power. It’s more and more obvious that today’s leaders have shared
power. . . or no power at all. 

Terrific research dating from as recent as 2008 confirms my notion. David Collinson, in Dialectics of Leadership,
completed what amounts to a mega-study on the same issue in 2005. His
conclusion is that leader-led relations, contrary to the traditional
view, always contain the potential for conflict, dissent and resistance,
making the whole notion of leadership an overblown idea. Though the
idea of leader and follower identities are deeply embedded in Western
society, they simply are no longer sustainable.


Because I started my career in the protestant church ministry, I
realized from nearly the first month that my role of leader had huge
constraints and controls placed upon it at all times. Power, insight,
intelligence, expertise is distributed throughout the congregation. And
if I was to become a successful leader, I had a lot of talking to do. I
learned early on, as a result of a number of very caring parishioners,
that I needed to talk, talk, and talk some more with all my constituency
in order to achieve any kind of measurable objectives. I also learned
that if I attempted to make significant decisions of any sort without
those conversations, negotiations, agreements, changes, readjustments
and sign-offs from 40 or 50 different people with leadership power, I
would be in deep shit. 

So, years later, when I was invited into a consulting conversation by
the CIO of the Pillsbury Company, he asked a telling question of me.
“You come highly recommended, but what does being a pastor have to do
with working for me?” I asked whether he had church experience, and he
responded affirmatively. “Tell me, “I asked, “how many political
factions were there in your church?” He was silent for a few moments,
and then he responded with no other questions, “I understand your value.
You have the job.” 

On another occasion, he dealt with the notion of distributed
leadership better than anyone I’ve ever heard. I happened to sit in on a
conversation between him and one of his directors, who was asking for a
promotion. The C IO clarified the matter most eloquently: “I don’t
promote you. Your subordinates, your peers and your clients promote you.
I merely confirm what they tell me about you.” That director changed
his ways fast, sharing his power, insights and resources with the
relevant constituency. There were a lot of changed conversations and
behaviors taking place as a result of that straightforward message. He
didn’t learn ‘till late in his career that in his business, everyone had
leadership power. 


First, recognize that all this business about McConnell, Obama,
Pelosi, Boehner and Cantor and their leadership successes and failures
being ultimately determinative for our country is loaded with a fair
amount of bullshit.  John Boehner of the House has gone from being a
great success, to under attack, to a failure, to a great success. Will
Eric Cantor eventually take control? And President Obama has gone from
being a great, cutting edge success to a wimp, to a compromiser and to a
failure. The assumptions of leadership—followership are sacrosanct. But
you’re going to have to look a lot deeper than at the top to figure out
what’s going on. And all five of those guys are going to have to have a
lot of conversations with their constituency–and create more
constituency–to get anything done. The subterfuge of the Tea Party in
the House ought to have made that clear to everyone by now. But just in
case, I’ve written this for you, dear reader. 

Second, be aware that most anyone in your firm that wants it, can
develop leadership power of one sort or another. It’s merely the power
to get things done through other people, and there plenty of workers
with no vested power who use all kinds of leadership power in achieving
their objectives. 

This entire business of leadership and leadership notions is a big
balloon that needs to be punctured. Nahhh.  It really needs to be
exploded. It’s largely nonsense that makes for great press, creates
conflicts that the media can pay attention to, and sells a lot of books.
But be very careful. The belief in leaders and leadership as it’s
usually discussed is very bad for your health. 

The truth is that though leaders have considerable power, their
control over subordinates is just as often shifting, paradoxical and
contradictory.  Followers are frequently proactive LEADERS for
themselves, knowledgeable and opposed to their bosses and their
objectives. Leadership control is shaped by the resistance and the
conversations of direct reports and the organization. The communication
in organizations is a dynamic knot of contradictions, ceaseless
interplay between contrary and opposing tendencies. Subordinates, like
their bosses, selectively disclose, exaggerate, conceal and/or
understate information. And that’s very much reality. With the knowledge
revolution, it becomes even more so. 

So leadership roles are a lot more fuzzy than perhaps most of us want
to believe. And the power of leadership is never distributed clearly or
definitively. That’s organizational reality. It galls me, for example,
that guys who’ve never been invested with power or given direct power,
like Russ Limbaugh or Grover Norquist, can simply take on leadership
power in the GOP at their own will. But I know it happens just as much
down the totem pole as with the so-called higher ups. But them’s the
facts of life, buddy, and the sooner we acknowledge them, the better off
we’ll be.

Link to original post

Leave a Reply