This is something of a digression from previous ‘how-to’ posts. Instead I’ve felt motivated to share my perspective on leadership, which is an issue in society that impacts organizations of all sizes and kinds, from parenting through to corporations and government.

What is Leadership

I’ve often been struck by the distance between leadership as it is defined in management texts and how it is executed. My trusty management textbook places leadership as the fourth pillar of management in the section “Leading – To Inspire Effort”, and defines leadership as “the process of inspiring others to work hard to accomplish important tasks” (Schermerhorn 2001, p262). This is a fairly open definition that could include anything from managing an empowered self-managing team through to slavery. To be fair to the author, it is followed by six chapters expanding on the subject.

The contents of that text are based on the outcome of decades of research and analysis. In general, research seeks to simplify the thing under study as much as possible – to be the crucible that burns away insignificance and leaves us with the key factors that impact something. I believe concise leadership contingency models like Hersey-Blanchard and it’s three-dimensional matrix of relationship and task behavior and follower readiness illustrate how complicated systems can be abstracted to their significant details, and that such models are critical for illuminating various facets of management and preparing managers to handle the many different people and situations they may encounter (and to be clear: leaders are managers. If you are inspiring people then you are managing them).

What scientific management seems to cover less (or at least less so in introductory textbooks) is that people are.. well.. people. They aren’t ‘rational agents’ conforming to the box neatly defined by research, and they have – insert-deity-here forbid – feelings! People are squishy and unpredictable, and frankly if you’re in a management position and don’t think that I’m stating the bleeding obvious, then you need to find another job. The literature on this side of management tends to be more anecdotal, but also easy to empathize with regardless of which side of the managing/managed fence you fall on.

Theory vs Practice

So now I will add my anecdotes through some hypothesizing. I’m told (by Wikipedia) that around 1% of the population suffers from the most extreme form of narcissism, and it is my contention that these people tend to cluster in leadership roles. The very nature of “knowing you’re right” and projecting that confidence (however un-examined it may be) creates the vision that management theory looks for. It also creates an environment that followers need to have a sense of fulfillment – after all in our comfortable post-Maslow worlds we need to make a difference to find satisfaction, and what better way than fulfilling a vision to ‘achieve great change/improvement/innovation/etc’. The people who espouse this confidence are also lauded by their superiors who naturally prefer supposed simplicity over the complex reality of the situation, and thus these people tend to elevate into positions of power. Unfortunately people who ‘know’ they’re right also tend to be extremely resistant to anything that challenges their perspective. Such a conflict can be very personal and highly destructive given that any challenge is perceived as a threat to that person’s self-image or core values.

In practice the leader’s vision tends to be skewed towards their own goals, and while organizational alignment is usually covered by at least lip service, the goals tend to be angled towards their individual needs, whether for career progression (who hires the manager who thought the status quo was working great and opted not to change anything?) or a psychological need (e.g. admiration, entitlement).

This is the point where I start to struggle with these people. I believe I’m experienced enough to be positive about people and work with them to foster the goals of the relevant organization, but my natural desire for analysis means that over time I tend to find concerning dissonance in their positions. Where I’m not experienced enough, or perhaps just disinclined to submit to this aspect of culture, is that I will point out that dissonance, and in doing so create the conflict.

The world of management theory tells us to be transparent with problems because organizations can’t fix problems they can’t see, and it tells us managers that a moderate level of conflict is good (too little means people have stopped caring and are probably looking for other jobs). What it doesn’t tell us is that some of the time the manager is going to see that as a personal threat, or they’re going to ignore it and place you in the ‘whiner’ box, because these managers aren’t entirely cut out for their jobs, but there is seldom any way to observe this problem and correct it in an organization. Studies strongly indicate that the most significant factor in employee retention is their immediate manager, and yet dysfunction in that relationship is often invisible to the organization until it is too late.

We know what’s good for us, but…

Perhaps the most scientific expression of this I’ve run into is in the book Good to Great by Jim Collins. Chapter 3 very clearly summarizes that the best leaders have the opposite traits to narcissists. They are modest and under-stated, are diligent and workman-like, and they give credit where it is due but shield others from failure (Collins 2001, p39). This doesn’t stop them having a firm vision and a strong will to achieve it, but they do so by getting the right people and getting them to buy into the vision and steer the organization toward it, and expecting they’ll do the same at the next level of the organization. It is a positive and virtuous cycle if achieved.

The literature also highlights how salary and performance of top leaders correlate negatively. And yet this need for ‘leadership’ for the self-fulfilment and simplicity reasons I highlighted earlier mean these leaders, who are by all accounts bad at their jobs, continue to be highly rewarded – and probably more so that than less confident peers given their heightened sense of self-worth likely translates into salary expectations.

I doubt any of this is new. Much has been written about how “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge” (Darwin). What remains surprising or perhaps depressing, is that for all the things we’ve learned about scientific management and about people and behaviors, is that we still reward sub-optimal behavior. Put another way, society seems to revere leaders that overestimate and under-deliver, and who are comfortable treating us as disposable minions to be crushed on the path to their own glory. And that doesn’t seem like progress.