Climbers Against Leadership

According to many researchers, Western society appears to becoming overly individualistic, self-centered and materialistic.  This should not be surprising given the importance the socio-economic system places on the maximization of material self-interest—it would be a surprise, of course, if it were otherwise.

Many people, especially younger people, are understandably quite focused on getting ahead—meaning making money.  A Pew Research Center survey in 2007 reported 81% of 18- to 25-year-olds versus 62% of 26- to 40-year-olds said getting rich was their most important goal. That is, having a successful career—climbing the ladder of success—is the goal and path that yields recognition, status, position, privilege and wealth.  Who wouldn’t want these!  In a self-interest maximizing socio-economic environment such trappings are the measure and mark of success.

So what is the best way to get ahead in an organization?  Don’t try to swim against the tide; don’t spit into the wind; don’t ruffle anyone’s feathers. It is all about ‘me’ trying to look good, especially when the bosses are looking.  It follows that playing for ‘me’ can look a lot like playing for the ‘team’. Being the sycophant is merely a role one plays toward career advancement.

Accordingly, those who successfully play eventually attain top-level positions within the hierarchy of an organization.  They are then referred to—erroneously I might add—as ‘the leadership’.  That said, many might ask why erroneously?  Well, we’ve addressed this issue in many previous essays such as Misplaced Attention, Leadership Involves We Not Me and What to Look For.

But more to the point, success in a career does not equate to success in leadership (for more on this see “Leadership and the fate of organizations” by Kaiser, Hogan & Craig in American Psychologist, February-March 2008).  For example, while charismatic executives may get paid well and engender an adoring following, they don’t generally perform well as leaders on behalf of the organization.  The organization like the people who comprise it, are simply instrumental to their self-serving intention.  If charisma is not coupled with critical thinking, systems thinking, synergistic/creative thinking, an understanding of the importance of progress in business and an appropriately developed sense of self, then the career built is precariously resting on sand.  Such superficial people tend to be narcissistic, the creators of toxic environments and the destroyers of potential.

Organizational performance is an emergent property that arises from the interaction among many in an organization.  Hence when the interactions are sterile—not trusting, not collaborative and not synergistic—as would be the case in a fear-laden environment, organizational performance is sub-optimized.

This can be a very vicious cycle, where those at the top surround themselves with like-minded people—not possessing the inquiring mind of leadership, but the incurious mind of a career climber—who are playing their way to the executive suite.  The measure and mark of success is clear.  Could this be a major reason for the dearth of effective leadership throughout many of our organizations?

7 thoughts on “Climbers Against Leadership

  1. Minding the Shop and the Systems alternative to Leadership.

    I sometimes believe that certain companies bypass the leadership issue by other strategies. This is not of course the best thing they could do, but in good times they can get away with it.

    In some cases they do this by the “business model” they have created, way back. These businesses are often highly systemised.

    If the business model is very robust, then the tiers of leadership are perhaps not selected so carefully.

    I often see this with big well established companies. Where some one has expanded the business into a new territory and then a lesser mortal is put in place to run things. Fancy job title but is simply minding the shop.

    In this changing world these so called “Robust Models” do often break down and the problem is there is not the leadership at any level to make the necessary adjustments.

    For many companies because of the nature of the markets the business model is not so robust, and this is where they come unstuck if every tier of leadership is not good and highly effective.

    For instance In the UK baking, local and regional mangers and directors have very little discretion. They operate to a menu of options. There is very little real decision making for managers to do. In this Global financial crisis I often wonder how many basically sound businesses went to the wall, because they had a relatively minor cash flow crisis and the bank refused to help them because all the boxes could not to ticked.

    In my home town in the UK I saw a small but highly profitable aluminium foundry close down for ever, simply because its one of its major customers temporally cut demand just to use up some inventory.

    In the automotive industry at the OEM level and Supplier level things unravel pretty dam quickly if all levels of leadership are not effective. At the supplier level I have spent a lot of my career trying to bring order out of chaos, where various levels of leadership of broken down. The way the upper leadership “used” me was to work out a plan of what the operational leadership should be doing and then monitor its implementation and adjust the plans accordingly.

    What I have seen in the automotive industry is a lack of even the most basic leadership training. Supervisors and manager and directors or VP’s as the Americans call then are often selected on the basis of personality. The worse ones are the bullies who are often the most ignorant of the lot. In your piece you mention the nice guys often they will listen, the bullies will not.

  2. John as noted in Toxicity of the Intoxicated, the bullies create a culture that is detrimental to the human spirit. Hence people unwilling to be submissive and subservient leave the company and those who are left are mere sycophants.

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