Leadership Theology

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When John described his boss as a “genuine, authentic, Level Five leader” I almost spit out my beer. And it takes an awful lot to make me even get close to getting rid of good beer.

I’m just a simple preacher’s boy trying to make his way in the world, but it seems like our discussions of leadership have gotten less helpful and more abstract.

The Marine Corps taught me that leaders have two responsibilities. One is to accomplish the mission and the other is to care for the people. That still makes sense to me. If I want to judge a leader, like Jack Welch, I can look at the economic results that GE achieved while he was CEO. I can look at how the company developed and cared for people on his watch. With assessments of those two measurements and I can make some judgment about whether he was a good leader or not, given the hand he was dealt. But it seems that’s not enough anymore.

Our discussions about leaders revolve around what they are and not about the results they get. From my vantage point, that’s just another version of the “born leader” thing. It can be fun to talk about, but I don’t know how to judge whether is a leader is “genuine” and I’m not sure how you go about learning to be genuine. Our leadership conversations are starting to resemble theology.

Purity Tests

One way that you can get a sense of these theological aspects of leadership discussion is to realize that for some people, there are purity tests. A leader must act a certain way or use certain language to describe what he or she does to be “real” or “authentic” or “true.” And real or authentic or true leaders are superior to plain, old effective leaders.

Leadership Cults

Just like real theology, leadership theology has specific beliefs that different cults hold up as the one thing you must do if you’re going to be counted among the “real” leaders.

Engagement is a big favorite. There’s no agreed-upon definition, so every consulting firm defines it and measures it in its own way. The result is that for decades, battalions of consultants have worked at improving engagement scores. It doesn’t seem like the needles have moved much. But the truth is that you can have wonderfully engaged workers and still have a failing company if they’re doing the wrong things or if your financial management is bad.

Another favorite cult is the cult of innovation. I read an article the other day that began with a statement that innovation is the one thing you must get right if you want your company to be successful. Well, maybe. But let’s remember Xerox. Back in the day, they produced the great innovations upon which the personal computer was based. So, they get credit for innovation, but they never put those things to work in an economically productive and sustainable way and so others got to reap the rewards of the computer revolution while Xerox went on about the business of selling copiers.

Then there’s my favorite leadership cult, the one that claims that leaders are superior people. You hardly ever hear it phrased like that. More often, you hear that we need “more leaders and fewer managers.” That’s often attributed to Peter Drucker, but he was talking about leadership and management, kinds of work, not kinds of people. The reality is if you’re responsible for the performance of a group, you’re expected to lead and you’re expected to manage, and you’re expected to supervise your direct reports. You don’t get any choice about these things.

All Leadership Is Situational

Boris Groysberg has done research that indicates that a person who is a top performer in one situation may not necessarily be a top performer in another situation. People aren’t “superior,” instead they deliver great results in some situations, but not in others. That’s just common sense, but we often forget it. The legendary psychologist Harry Levinson told us that way back in the 1980s.

“Our crucial concern is with what the leader actually does, day by day, to build followers and knit them into an organization that can sustain them.”

The only way to accurately assess leadership by performance is by looking at what the leader does, not what the leader is. We don’t rate most of the people in our life based on whether they are “real” or “authentic.” We rate them based on their performance. That’s a good way to measure leaders, too. Did the leader’s team accomplish their mission? Did the leader’s teammates grow and develop because of things the leader did? That’s about all that we can do.

We don’t need abstract statements and we don’t need invisible traits. Just results.

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Sue Newcombe   |   13 Nov 2016   |   Reply

Great article. I agree with that the discussions around leadership often get very theoretical when in reality leadership is not complex – as you say boils down to getting results and caring for people.

Wally Bock   |   14 Nov 2016   |   Reply

Thanks, Sue