Dangerous Rubbish About Leadership
post # 36 — March 26, 2006 — a Managing post
Adam Smith, Esq. (aka Bruce McEwen) has joined the discussion about what makes managers different from leaders. His comments are here
I keep getting asked about this topic, so here goes my ten cents worth. I think more rubbish has been written about ‘leadership’ than almost any other business topic. A lot of it is patently false, and even more of it is dangerous.
The fatal flaw in discussions of ‘leadership’ is the implicit assumption that we want to be led. Not many of us do, especially not the highly educated, credentialed, well-paid group of us that like to call ourselves professionals.
We want to be helped, we’ll agree to be coached and (with careful definition of the term) we might consent to be managed. But we’ll rarely agree to be led.
I’ve quoted this before, but it’s worth repeating here: the word manager derives from a mediaeval French or Italian word, meaning the holder of horses. It should conjure up the image of the task of getting a number of fiery beasts, each more powerful than the manager, to act in consort.
The word leader, on the other hand, derives from a Chaucer-era word that meant the person who chose the route on the expedition (‘This way, people’!) That image evokes a model that won’t work – trying to tell me where to go, pretending to me more expert than I am, trying to take charge. That’s not how it’s most effectively done.
Yes, the business books and the business schools are filled with descriptions of leaders who inspired others with their ‘visions,’ but such descriptions fail to point out two key facts. First, the number of people in human history who have been able to energize large numbers of people through their vision is very small, and secondly, three of them were Hitler, Lenin and Chairman Mao.
I’m not saying that the leadership model cannot work – just that few people trying the approach of ‘Let’s go this way!’ actually can or do evoke a broad reaction of ‘Ooh, yes. Let’s do just that!’
Advocating that someone energize a professional firm or group through ‘leadership’ is like advising someone to be talented. You either have what it takes to get people to see you as a leader or you don’t. And by the way, if you’re not yet sure whether you have this ability – you don’t! You would have known whether you had it or not by the time you got out of high school.
For the rest of us who don’t have this innate ability, all is not lost. What we need to do is stop pursuing the mirage of leadership, and start learning the model of how to be an effective manager – helping other people, individually and in groups, truly accomplish their potential. This requires putting the people being helped at the center of the discussion, not the leader. Management can be learned, but not if you’re trying to be something you’re not supposed to be and are probably incapable of being.
Another dimension of real-world leadership is commonly misunderstood. Many writers on management (and many real world managers) think that the best way to evoke energy and create a strategy is to articulate (as Collins and Porras put it in Built to Last) BIG HAIRY AUDACIOUS GOALS (BHAGs)
This is a misleading and factually incorrect way of representing what great builders of professional firms (and other companies) have done over the years.
What is distinctive about the truly great professional firm builders is that they did not talk about destinations (number of offices, size of firm, range of disciplines, diversity of services.) None of these things mattered to David Ogilvy, Marvin Bower, Leo Burnett, Sidney Weinberg, David Packard – or Clint Stevenson, the main moulder of Latham & Watkins in the 1970s .
What these firm-builders cared about were the principles that were to be observed as the firm ran its affairs, served its clients, managed its people and invested its resources. The goals, the outcomes, the destinations were not the strategy, and were certainly not the defining characteristics of the firms they built.
Instead, it was the ideology they preached (and enforced) that mattered. They led not by the clarity of their vision of the future, nor even because of their better understanding of finances or marketing, but because they were able to get even highly talented, extraordinarily mobile people to rally around a fervently held, common way of doing things – a world view, a philosophy, a set of principles, values or standards.
These were not soft principles. They had to do with who would be hired, what quality standards would be enforced, how resources would be allocated.
At places like Sony and Hewlitt Packard in their heydays, it was effective processes that mattered – not which product happened to be that year’s hot toy.
Many firms still misunderstand this meaning of the word strategy. They choose a size to aim at, a set of new locations to be in and a set of new service lines they plan to enter through lateral hiring. None of these choices affect the underlying competitiveness of firms, which is about productivity, passion and purpose, not products and places.
Great leaders (there, I’ve said the dreaded word) get people to focus on the key elements of strategy – the standards on which the firm is going to compete. With a clear ideology to rally around, talented people get the choicee of saying – ‘I can believe in that. I think I’ll stick around to a part of that and be a member of a society of like-minded people operating together in accordance with common values.’ That commitment, in company after company, has led to service line and market sector choices not no-one anticipated, because they were not the guts of the strategy, but rather the outcome of the strategy – the firm’s own way of doing things.
If a leader can create THAT – then I’ll agree to use the term ‘leader.’