4 Important Truths about Leadership

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Throughout history, we’ve sung the praises and shared the exploits of leaders from Alexander the Great to George Washington to Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Business has had its own great leaders. We tell the stories of the exploits of John D. Rockefeller and Alfred Sloan and Jack Welch. But, somewhere around the middle of the 20th century, we started studying leadership in the abstract. That has generated an entire leadership industry.

The Leadership Industry

The leadership industry debates what leadership really is. They parse their arguments and define their terms as carefully as medieval theologians. And they have created more “help” than you could possibly use in a lifetime. The category for business leadership on Amazon, at least as of this morning, had more than 35,000 books. Go to Google and enter the term “leadership training” and Google returns more than 500 million links in less than a second.

All of this would be quite wonderful if it made a major impact on the quality of leadership. If that had happened, organizations would be productively humming along filled with happy and engaged workers. But, I don’t think that’s the case. I’m not the only one, either. Here’s what Jeffrey Pfeffer says in his book, Leadership BS: “The leadership industry has failed. Good intentions notwithstanding, there is precious little evidence that any of these recommendations have had a positive impact.”

As I see it, the leadership industry has split into two distinct factions. One has elevated leadership to a magical, mystical function performed by superior human beings. Another one says that “Anyone can lead.” No matter what your place in the organization, no matter your ability, you can lead.

We’ve gotten to a place where the leadership industry is more concerned with brand building and theological arguments than it is with helping men and women do a better job. That’s why you’ll rarely hear the following important truths about leadership.

Leadership Is a Kind of Work

Strip away all the magical jargon, and leadership is a kind of work. That’s good news, because it means that leadership is a set of skills that you can master. It’s not so good for the leadership industry, though, because what’s true of leadership is what’s true of being a clerk or a dental hygienist or a plumber. Some people will like it and be good at it and others won’t. Sure, anyone can lead, but some people don’t want to and some who want to won’t do it well.

Leadership Is Necessary, But…

We need people to do leadership work. Someone must set to set direction and help the organization maintain momentum. Someone, to quote Marcus Buckingham, has to “rally people to a better future.” But leadership is not a superior kind of work. It’s noble, like any work, but it’s no better than any other work.

Leadership Is Situational

Whether you are effective as a leader depends on more than just you and your competence. Harvard University’s Boris Groysberg studied top-performing leaders who moved from one situation to another. Some of them succeeded. Some of them did not. It turns out that the organization, the support system, and the challenges of a specific situation make a huge difference in whether a leader succeeds or not.

Being A Leader Is a Role, Not A State of Being

The leadership industry language of “authentic” and “real” and “true” leaders treats leaders much like the Roman Catholic Church thinks about priests. When that church ordains a priest, that person is a priest forever, all the time, and everywhere. But leaders are different. The people we call “leaders” don’t lead all the time. Conduct a meeting in your office and you’re leading. Go down the hall to the next meeting where you’re part of a project team and you’re a participant and contributor.

Bottom Line

There are plenty of fine resources that will help you do the work of leadership well. Find some that work for you and use them. Beware of anything that sounds like magic or theology. Then work at doing a better job.

Here are three of my favorite resources.

The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner

Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best… and Learn from the Worst by Robert I. Sutton

The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker

That’s only the tip of the resource iceberg. What other resources would you suggest?

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