The real leadership crisis

The 'leadership crisis' is not a dearth of great leaders: it's poorly chosen people appointed to a faulty specification to do a job that's designed to make them do the wrong thing

If quantity of ink were the criterion, we’d know everything there was to know about leadership and more. The last time I looked there were 64,000 titles on the subject listed at Amazon (UK) – with another 2,000 added to the groaning shelves each year.

Yet it’s one of those topics that the more you read and talk about, the smaller the area of certainty becomes (‘I’m still confused, but at a higher level’, as Goethe said after reading Hegel). What’s more, the higher the pile get, the more confused thinking and practice become, triggering yet more effusions on the subject. No wonder there’s a ‘leadership crisis’, even though it’s not the one that most people think it is.

It was hard not to reach this conclusion at a fascinating recent symposium on the subject at Gresham College, London. It was illuminated by two dazzling lectures by Liz Mellon, executive director of Duke Corporate Education, and ex-headhunter Douglas Board, npw visiting fellow at Cass University, talking respectively of the way leaders think and the way they are appointed.

Reverse-engineering leaders, says Mellon, author of Inside The Leader’s Mind: Five Ways to Think Like a Leader, by breaking leadership into its component competencies and then finding (or forcing) candidates to fit the template, is doomed to failure. You might as well try to create a butterfly by pulling one to bits and using the parts as a blueprint for a new one. It’s only slightly less crude than the Frankenstein myth. What’s missing – what gives leadership life – is the way leaders think, and without it what you get is robots and clones: the exact opposite of what is needed for a world of ambiguity, few precedents, and incomplete information.

This error is made worse by the extraordinarily lackadaisical way senior leaders are chosen, according Board, whose book Choosing Leaders and Choosing to Lead: Science, Politics and Intuition in Executive Selection, came out in the summer. Despite spending enormous amounts on headhunters – a search for a US CEO can easily cost upwards of $1m – candidates for top jobs almost never get the grilling they deserve (and that more junior executive would undergo) from either board or search officers. The role of politics and intuition is rarely taken into account. As a result, those who get appointed to the top jobs are those who are firmly convinced by search’s rituals of deference that unlike other mere mortals they are already equipped for and deserve them. Hence, perhaps, the hubris, sense of entitlement and narcissistic display that is in evidence in boardrooms almost every day.

But what if leadership, like happiness and even profits, is best looked at as an epiphenomenon – a by-product of doing something else? Here’s a quote on captaincy by Martin Corry, a former captain of the England rugby team: ‘It’s a simple matter of making sure everyone knows what he’s supposed to be doing, and then letting them do it. After that, it’s about maintaining your own standards, which is the most effective way of winning the confidence of those around you. It’s obvious to me that you can’t have a captain the majority of the dressing-room think is a tosser. How can you stand up and say your piece in a team meeting if you’re playing like a fairy every weekend? Your performance carries the weight of everything. That’s all you need to remember, basically.’

‘Your current performance carries the weight of everything’. Given the arid competency approach, it’s not surprising, as Mellon notes, that the hottest leadership courses du jour are on ‘authenticity’ – ‘being yourself’ – in other words, another fruitless attempt to pin down an abstraction that doesn’t exist in isolation from the behaviour itself. But how can anyone be ‘authentic’ when they are simultaneously being expected to conform to the same competency framework as everyone else? You can convincingly have one or the other, but not except in the very rarest cases both.

So perhaps we should stop searching for a mythical particle called ‘leadership’ and instead start looking at character and values as a predictor of behaviour under pressure. ‘Leaders must be true to themselves, but they also have a role to deliver that demands that they should rather bring the best of themselves to every situation’, says Mellon. ‘I believe we should ask leaders to get straight how they think about their role – and then trust that the right behaviour, across a broad spectrum, will follow’.

The proviso here, though, is that our current management model demands that leaders march their troops in the wrong direction. Take corporate governance arrangements, at the heart of which is financial alignment of top management with shareholders’ interests. Yet as überguru Gary Hamel has noted, while managers boast of their alignment with shareholders, ‘My guess is that… shareholders would have been better serviced if their chairman could have bragged about being aligned with employees and customers. It seems to me that a CEO’s first accountability should be to those who have the greatest power to create or destroy shareholder value’. Would there be £18bn claims on the banks, the worst banking scandal in history, for PFI mis-selling if CEOs were aligned with customers and employees rather than shareholders?

So, to sum up: the ‘leadership crisis’ does not consist of a dearth of great leaders (or rather, the unrealistic desire for great leaders is the wrong solution to a problem that does not exist in the form most people think it does). It is that senior leaders are poorly chosen, against mis-specified qualifications, and given a job that is designed to make them do the wrong thing.

On second thoughts, perhaps we do need a few more books on leadership after all.

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