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Do leadership experts have it wrong?


Fri Nov 13 2009


The Washington Post has an ongoing series of articles and opinion pieces about leadership. Given that we are busily working on The ASTD Leadership Handbook, edited by Elaine Biech, today's guest insight by Matthew Stewart, a former management consultant--The Seduction of Leadership Gurus--caught my eye. After all, our book has an impressive lineup of leadership gurus, including Jim Collins, Jack Zenger, John Kotter, Dave Ulrich, Norm Smallwood, Ed Cohen, Len Goodstein, Ed Betof, and Bill Gentry (to name a few who got their chapters in early), so should we be looking at some racier covers to capture their seductive qualities? No? Oh well. Too bad. It coulda been fun.

Anyway, in his piece, Stewart talks about four lessons he's learned from reading the leadership literature that render the whole concept of leadership literature problematic:

  • Great leadership isn't teachable. (Does that mean that the great number of books and seminars about leadership may be more about boosting the ego and filling the wallet of the leadership guru than about enabling people to become great leaders?)

  • Great leadership is a property of groups, not individuals. (In other words, great followers make great leaders. With too much emphasis on the individual at the top you lose sight of the importance of the people around the leader helping him or her to make the right decisions.)

  • Great leadership is circumstantial. (You have to be in the right place at the right time, or else you may never become a great leader.)

  • Great leadership can get ugly. (My immediate reaction to this is, if it's ugly, it's not great leadership. It's bad leadership. In some cases, it isn't leadership at all.)

If I understand his overall point correctly, he is saying that leadership literature tends to focus solely on the individual as great leader and fails to look at the entire system that creates the incubator for great leadership. Thus the reader may get some interesting stories and inspiration from leadership books and seminars, but doesn't get a blueprint for creating an environment that will allow great leadership to flourish.

These are some of my general reactions to Stewart's piece:

  • What exactly is the leadership literature that he is talking about? I have come across quite a few books that discuss the setting for leadership and not just the characteristics of the individual.

  • What is the point of providing leadership training or writing books about leadership? Although there are always those who are cynically just in it for the money or to feel good about themselves, my experience with authors is that they genuinely want to share their experience in the hope that it will help someone do something better. Most of us have learned at least one lesson the hard way and would like to help others bypass that experience. Furthermore, I would argue that leadership behaviors can be learned, although becoming a great leader requires experience and practice. In that way, it is similar to painting: You can learn the basic techniques, the types of brushes to use, the characteristics of various types of thinners and pigments, but you won't become a great painter without the practice and the experience.

  • I like his idea that leadership books that focus on "charismatic leaders \[who\] have mastered the very forces of nature and can squeeze profits out of rocks with their bare hands" isn't a good way "to develop the practices of participation and accountability that characterize those systems that are capable of producing good leadership." In other words, sole reliance on this type of leadership book, especially in a training or business school setting, may not be such a great idea. But once again, that gets us back to my first point: What are these books? There are others out there that focus on the larger picture.

Anyway, these are just a few of my thoughts about leadership literature and Stewart's article. I have more, but am not yet fully able to articulate them. I'd like to hear what you have to say about the subject though!

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