Misplaced Attention for Leadership

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.

A Case-in-Point

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?

8 thoughts on “Misplaced Attention for Leadership

  1. I completely agree with you (if I got it right) that the emphasis of most “pop” publications on leadership is on the persona of the “leader.” People who read such books, or go through training based on their ideas, typically walk away with the notion that “leadership” is an attribute of their personages rather than a relationship between the leader and the led. Accordingly, they worry more about their posturing and their managed “presences”–in short, the appearances of leadership behavior–than on the work of mobilizing their people. They think that if they focus on themselves in this way that leadership will just sort of “happen.” Neither they nor the received wisdom in the field seem to recognize that the work of leadership is as much the work of the led as of the leaders. The work of leadership is about getting others to do their parts in the collective work of “leadership.” In not recognizing that, they fill the world with more of something it already has in abundance–vanity.

    • Rick I agree, the leadership experience is about the relationship between the leader and the led. As you say, far too many focus attention on posturing & image.

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  3. I could not agree more with the following: the analysis and assessment of leadership must be based on a far more in depth understanding of leadership and its effects.” I assume from reading some of your other posts, for you the phenomenon of leadership is far more complex, non-linear and qualitative.

    You seem to suggest that people tend to pay attention to and reify particular and perhaps preferred variables of a rather multidimensional and complex process, and call that leadership. I asked this question on linkedin and I will ask it here, in your mind what are some of the variables that people tend to miss and why do you think this is so?

  4. Ken you said it quite succinctly, “people tend to pay attention to and reify particular and perhaps variables.” Why? I suspect it has to do with the Newtonian-Cartesian way of viewing things. People seem to believe this way is everywhere applicable and therefore leadership is simply a matter of picking up a few tools through training. While there are many aspects to leadership, one that is ignored out of existence is the fact that we are human beings–not just the most intelligent animal– in need of becoming more of what we potentially are: Human beings being human.

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