Thursday, October 28, 2004

Why are leaders so poor?

One logical conclusion to modern western culture's peculiar obsession with individuality is the industry for teaching leadership to people in leadership roles. A quick browse of the business section of any bookstore reveals a huge number of volumes about leadership and management.

One reason for this is the huge number of managers who have neither training nor experience in managing people. Often a few years of success at some other role (such as a corporate lawyer) or, worse, a graduate degree in some fashionable discipline (such as engineering) supposedly qualifies a person for a management role. Of course, this is neither logical nor practical, but the solution most organizations seem to take is to attack the symptoms (our leaders are of poor quality) rather than the cause (we choose or prepare our leaders poorly).

An important component of the whole problem, though, is that we have far too many leaders, and hold them in far too high esteem. As a result, we have lost sight of the crucial other side of the equation -- the followers.

I'm not advocating blind, sheep-like devotion to leaders, but it's worth recognizing and rewarding followers who make leading easier. They are an important component of good leadership, and are the source of the positive feedback loop that exists for a team that is profoundly in synch.

The other side of the problem, of course, is that it's a lot easier to sell a book to someone by telling them that they could be a great leader than it is by telling them they could be a great follower. I probably shouldn't be as surprised as I am.


At 1:55 AM, Blogger M@ said...

This was actually posted on October 28. However, I started drafting it on the 12th, I guess, and it was posted with that datestamp. Don't seem to be able to change that. Ah well. The secret bonus easter egg post!

At 1:59 AM, Blogger M@ said...

Well it seems that one _can_ change things if one tries hard enough. Success at last!

Yeah, so I don't "blog" much... in case you couldn't tell...

At 5:45 AM, Blogger Sandra said...

So, are you saying the quality of our leaders depends on the willingness of the followers to be led?

Wow. I've never thought about it that way.

I don't know if leadership is something that can be taught, necessarily. I mean, obviously, it can be learned, but through experience, through actually having to manage a group of others. Some are more naturally attuned to that, I think. Maybe that's part of the problem for the proliferation of poor leadership.

There's a phenomenon in corporate America (and other places, I'm sure) where people who do the bare minimum of required work get promoted to high management positions, as opposed to those individuals who work very, very hard. The idea being that those more lazy individuals will be less of a threat to the higher-ups in the future. How can these individuals be expected to be competent leaders if they can barely do their own jobs? Of course it effects how their employees view them -- if it's obvious the leader can't lead, the follower won't follow.

It's hard for people to be led by someone they don't respect. I don't mean putting leaders up on a pedestal, but I think it's a natural tendency to want to be led (again, not in a sheep-like way), so it becomes difficult when the person in that position isn't followable. Maybe the dynamic should be rearranged -- into more of a group dynamic, than with someone at the head, but again, the person with the more forceful personality is going to eventually emerge as the "leader."

Quite a chicken and egg problem, isn't it?

At 9:38 AM, Blogger Simon said...

I'm finding as I read English history (through Churchill's eyes) that the poor leaders actually did a great deal of good structurally, because their poor leadership created a need for strong accountability structures that offered checks and balances.

Bizarre really, but it makes sense in retrospect. Hero-type leaders are more likely to attract worshippers than intelligent followers. Or maybe that's just in the past :)

At 5:36 PM, Blogger Borscht said...

Simon, yes, I see what you mean -- I was actually going to make reference to Churchill too -- his calling was serendipitous, and nothing else -- it wasn't that he was a natural leader -- yes, he wanted to (especially to clear his name after numerous gaffes in other senior positions), but it necessarily wasn't forthcoming because he'd asked for it. (I even think until the last min. before Chamberlain resigned, he still couldn't believe they wanted him, of all people).

A legacy project soon arose (WWII), and he was astute enough to realise it would be his sole chance at stamping his name indelibly on the event. Later, who would have thunk the war would have redeemed his tarnished rep for all time, eh?

I personally feel that Churchill is NOT a viable representative example to use in modern practica on leadership other than for his ability to lead_by_example -- he was too much a product of his environment to really allow us to extrapolate anything of value for a self-help book -- like the ones adorning the shelves of our wonderful bookstores.

I mean, think about it -- when Chamberlain and Daladier gave up the Sudetenland -- Churchill -- a serial bumbler, was given a chance to shine -- and shine he did. Another reason -- he was a master student of history -- knew exactly what he wanted from the position -- and was a brilliant writer.

Books on leadership?

naw, I don't believe any one book is the sole answer - kinda funny after hundreds of books I've read that people can still claim there's just one book that's the end all be all (Simon -- I know what you're thinking umbrage intended -- this is a different context).

Like Churchill, modern leaders are a composite of other leaders. Churchill had a panache -- a drunken bumbling one sometimes, but a panache nevertheless. Totally unlearnable.

On another tip: The best leaders are 'situation-specific takers' -- someone steps into a breach, takes a pile a lemons, and makes lemonade.

Churchill was the master lemonade maker -- but I still feel you can't apply his lessons.

At 6:20 PM, Blogger Simon said...

Interesting, because I feel I'm learning a lot from Churchill! Having a rich and redolent sense of history, I am convinced, can be a real help with dealing with the present.

He also had an interesting quirk which I considered taking on once - from a very young age, he would only accept an order in writing. This was true of him as a young soldier in Sudan and just as true in the WWII years. I can totally understand the logic and find it fascinating - but I don't think I'll apply that to my own life. :)

At 7:16 PM, Blogger Borscht said...

History is a most compelling source of inspiration in my daily life. I sometimes wish I could spend more time in a library and read the much older classics -- perhaps to some degree, the instant books became a commodifiable resource, they lost of great deal of their delicious authenticity. (There was less of a peer review process, and so more and more people were able to get the 'truth' of the matter.)

I wonder why Churchill did that -- I presume because it established the precedent -- if someone was going to go to the trouble of placing it in writing -- they damn well knew that's what they wanted to do -- the mere act of writing being a means of reconfirming in your own mind your choice of actions.

Otherwise -- if I am surmising now -- the reason is because he'd had a terrible experience in the past -- and because the order wasn't printed in black and white costly errors were made -- and lives were lost. He didn't want to ever make the same mistakes again -- this for him, was anathema.

I am all for formalised arrangements -- although in the film business, they can truly be the bane of good writers -- most producers will take writers for a write -- so in this instance, I'd refer you one onto a very good entertainment lawyer.

Hope your afternoon's sweet Simon -- getting a little close to you -- I'll be in L.A. in a few hours.


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