The leadership delusion?

Phil Dourado also says research shows that bad leaders score themselves highly for leadership on self-assessment tests. Not so surprsing and it makes me wonder: how much of this is their personal capacity for self-delusion, and how much is a failure – for whatever reason – of people around them to put them right?

I might even ask whether the label of “leadership” really is anything other than a fancy way of giving approval? I’m interested in what Gabriele Lakomski says here, summarising her book Managing without Leadership.

Our everyday experience tells us that organisational life is messy and complex and that those in positions of leadership are neither omniscient nor infallible. Why, then, do we quite readily believe that there is a causal link between organisational functioning and leadership? Why do we not believe our own experience that how things work in organisations is much more complicated?

…In a naturalistic redescription of the phenomenon, we might view it as an emergent, self-organising property of complex systems. There would then be no need for engaging in more leadership studies: instead, we could redirect our attention to the study of the fine-grained properties of contextualised organisational practice.

8 thoughts on “The leadership delusion?

  1. John Stavely

    Great post!

    Good Leadership in my experience provides the “Glue and Grease” in business. They pull things together, clarify or help remove obstacles and provide resources. Knowing when to get out of the way is critical. Rarely is the group improved by command and control policies. Traditional Leadership by “being in charge” is a dinosaur and many folks just won’t respond to it anymore. Real accomplishment is the goal. Onward and upward!

  2. Niels Teunis

    This view shows an old fashioned notion of leadership. This portrays an organization as a hierarchy where only the people at the top have to be leaders.

    But what if we think of leadership as a personal attitude about life and work? What if everybody in an organization saw themselves as leader?

    • Everybody would be looking pro-actively to make their work better, to increase their impact on the organization.
  3. Nobody would blame the circumstances. Instead they will look for ways in which they can make a difference.
  4. All team members would raise the bar, instead of complaining when the one in charge asks to improve and innovate.
  5. Everybody would focus on results, not tasks.
  6. Everybody would approach their work as a freelancer doing projects that their livelihoods depend on, rather than workers doing a job.
  7. People would hold themselves accountable for mistakes, and share successes gladly with others.
  8. Leaders are vulnerable all the time, because they put themselves on the line for something they think is terrifically important.
  9. Now, that is leadership. That would make a great organization. We need a lot of leaders, not just a few. A strong organization cultivates more leadership, rather than less.

  10. Johnnie Moore

    Niels: I guess it won’t surprise you that I prefer that less hierarchical notion of leadership. My only concern is that we’re in danger of replacing one idealisation with another. So for instance, what actually happens in an organisation that says you shouldn’t complain? We end up with notions that feel like most values statements, motherhood and apple pie…

  11. Niels Teunis

    You are so right about. We don’t want a situation where someone is underperforming and automatically assume that they are not “showing leadership.” What a horrible thought. At the same time, people who will become stronger leaders in their line of work, easily upset the hierarchy. The “boss” can feel very threatened. “If you can have an opinion, I will give it to you.” Yet, for an organization to function without hierarchy, a high level of trust needs to exist among the various people. One person who is unaccountable can ruin a team. It happens all too often.

  12. Earl Mardle

    Nah, we need a new set of understandings about what an organisation is and how it works – and the stuff you post on that subject is always worth a read.

    One quibble, Lakomski says, “instead, we could redirect our attention to the study of the fine-grained properties of contextualised organisational practice”.

    Errm. No we couldn’t, partly because we can’t detect them, partly because there are (per your complexity post) faaaarrrrr too many of them and partly because, even if we could do both of those, the interrelationships among them would make any conclusions meaningless in short order.

    I prefer the Zen idea that at first everything looks simple and concrete, and then we investigate it and it becomes impossibly complex, and then we can reach another side where the knowledge of, and acceptance of the impossibilities of the complexity are subsumed and we reach a state which can both see the simple and concrete and work with it, while fully grasping that its concreteness is an illusion to which we cannot afford to cling when it fails.

    Or to quote that ancient Zen master Donovan Leitch,

    First there is a mountain

    Then there is no mountain

    Then there is.

  13. Johnnie Moore

    Hi Earl: Yes, I think the Zen thing says it best as it gets to the paradox of it all. I’m not quite sure exactly what Lakomksi means by the bit you quote; I think she’s stronger on spotting the problem than specifying the solution – though I don’t really hold that against her!


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