Seemingly for decades countless studies have failed to develop an operational definition of leadership. The only clear notion that many seem to advance is that leadership is the property of those persons within the upper echelon of an organization’s hierarchy: Leadership has become synonymous with a person of position or title—hence the commonly expressed goal of attaining a leadership position. Correspondingly there also appears to be a tendency toward idol worship of people holding a leadership position. If you doubt the validity of this assertion just take stock of the articles and books about those at the top of their respective organization who are offered up as models of leadership. It seems as though there is a book a month holding up a chief executive as an example of leadership for all to emulate.
Accordingly many in management, presumably in an effort to emulate these leaders, copy the practices of the latest idol with hopes of realizing similar results. Unfortunately, there is a problem with this on many levels: a) not all holding positions of leadership offer an appropriate model of leadership; b) not all practices should be copied; c) copying without an in depth understanding can be fatal, at least to the organization; and d) material results should not be the only focus.
For example a misguided practice of performance management—often referred to as ‘rank & yank’—has been copied in many organizations. Though this brute force practice may yield short-term material gain, it also fosters fear, mistrust and a culture of competition. Results antithetical to progress and to the very essence of the leadership experience.
As a means of identifying the presence of leadership, there is a tendency to ascribe a noteworthy outcome as an unmistakable leadership effect. As illustration, the CEO of a major big-box chain was credited for providing leadership that resulted in the corporation doubling in both the number of stores and its annual revenue over a span of six years. This person’s leadership is clearly evident. The fallacy in this conclusion is that favorable outcomes such as high profit or growth in assets can be the result of many different actions, not all of which are ascribable to leadership.
Applying a fundamental axiom in systems thinking (i.e. equifinality) we know that there are multiple paths to an end; that there is not just one way from point A to point B. Also, drawing upon principles of ethics we know not all favorable outcomes are the result of admirable behavior—the ends don’t justify the means! Moreover given the high degree of interdependency in and dynamic complexity of organizations it is wrong to assume that an effect is (always) locally caused or that the outcome catching our attention is the only effect.
Continuing with the above example, over the same 6-year span the organization realized a decline in intellectual capital, employee morale and quality of service. Although the organization materially grew and increased in profit, these were realized at the expense of progress—the organization was worse off relative to the future. However, the CEO moved on to do for another organization what he did for them.
Clearly, the analysis and assessment of leadership must be based on a far more in depth understanding of leadership and its effects than what an accounting of short-term profit and material growth could provide. A misplaced attention on results—on the empirical and material manifestations of decisions and action—of those at the top of the organization’s hierarchy, limits analysis solely to what can be readily observed and quantitatively measured.
How can there be so much written about leadership yet so little understanding! Why is it that most misplace (their) attention on results?