As I See It: The Elusive Leader
February 12, 2007 Victor Rozek
You have to have a degree in forbearance to read the Harvard Business Review. As you might expect, any publication boasting the Harvard imprimatur is not only likely to be pricey (which at $16.95 per issue it most assuredly is), but its pages are guaranteed to be brimming with Ivy League importance. Granted, the magazine publishes the results of scholarship and research, but it’s all so weighty and earnest that even the self-evident becomes profound by virtue of inclusion.
Take these startling revelations from a two-article expose on leadership in the February 2007 issue: “No one can be authentic by trying to imitate someone else.” Ya think? And this: “Even though managers pay lip service to the importance of mutual understanding, their real focus is on winning the argument.” Wow, I never would have suspected. This lack of originality is only surpassed by the number of researchers required to achieve it: No fewer than eight people collaborated on those two profundities.
OK, so all research conclusions can’t be brilliant, but at least one might expect them to be consistent. Not so. Evidently leadership is an elusive quarry. Consider the conclusions of the piece titled Discovering Your Authentic Leadership. After interviewing 125 leaders of assorted ages and occupations, and analyzing 3,000 pages of transcripts, the four authors admitted they finally understood “why more than 1,000 studies have not produced a profile of an ideal leader.” They said they were “startled to see that [the people they interviewed] did not identify any universal characteristics, traits, skills, or styles that led to their success.”
If 1,000 studies had already reached the same conclusion, you have to wonder how “startled” they could be; but apparently it takes a lot to startle the steely-eyed academic. So the question is this: If there are no commonalities, no predictable abilities, no essential attributes, where exactly does leadership come from? From your life story, they say.
Thirty-seven pages earlier, however, another article also written by a distinguished foursome–from MIT no less–reached a very different conclusion. These folks, as they are quick to point out, have worked with “hundreds of people.” They’ve studied leadership and taught leadership, and they’ve developed a model “which synthesizes our own research with ideas from other leadership scholars.” And, they are absolutely, positively certain that successful leaders do conform to a distinct profile, regardless of their life story. The MIT team concluded that leadership requires “a set of four capabilities” which include “sensemaking” (not an actual word, but brimming with academic ingenuity), “relating,” “visioning,” and “inventing.”
So in layman’s terms, to be a leader you have to have a clue, be good with people, know where you want to go, and be clever enough to get there. Hardly revolutionary, but the good news is they have a model; the bad news is they don’t believe anyone can do all of the things required by their model. But that doesn’t bother them in the least. “It’s time to end the myth of the complete leader; the flawless person at the top who’s got it all figured out,” they say. And the name of their article reflects this disdain for perfection: In Praise of the Incomplete Leader.
Meanwhile, the “Life Story” folks insist that leadership is a by-product of authenticity. The only common attribute successful leaders have, they say, is the ability to learn from their life story. And how do they do this? “Over and over [leaders] replay the events and personal interactions that are important to [their lives], attempting to make sense of them to find [their] place in the world.” (I sort of stopped doing that in my 20s because it seemed narcissistic and it didn’t change anything.) Regardless, many of the leaders they interviewed had difficult lives and found motivation in overcoming great obstacles. Overcoming obstacles is certainly a worthy launching pad for successful leadership, but what if you’ve had a boring, uneventful or, for that matter, an idyllic life? What if you were cursed with an average childhood, void of dragons to slay and light on inspirational experiences?
They don’t say.
But if there is a cure for developmental dullness it is self-awareness. The Authentic Leadership team queried the 75 members of the Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council. (That’s a lot of advice.) They wanted to know which capability was most important for leaders to develop. The Stanford folks almost unanimously recommended self-awareness.
Then it hit me. Presumably, given enough honest self-exploration, the authentic leader will realize his or her incompleteness and that is where the two articles unintentionally overlap. The authors of In Praise of the Incomplete Leader recommend embracing your incompleteness and asking for help because, they argue, no single person has “the intellectual capacity to make sense of unfathomably complex issues, the imaginative powers to paint a vision of the future that generates everyone’s enthusiasm, the operational know-how to translate strategy into concrete plans, and the interpersonal skills to foster commitment to undertakings that could cost people’s jobs should they fail.” In spite of being a numbingly long sentence, that’s certainly true, as anyone who has ever been overwhelmed can attest.
Likewise, the authors of Discovering Your Authentic Leadership recommend “building your support team,” which is just another way of getting the help you need. “Authentic leaders,” they say, “recognize that leadership is not about their success or about getting loyal subordinates to follow them. They know the key to a successful organization is having empowered leaders at all levels, including those who have no direct reports. They not only inspire those around them, they empower those individuals to step up and lead.” In other words, the Authentic Leader’s job is to inspire and empower lots and lots of help.
Wow, management by encounter group. What a concept!
“Hi, my name is Bob, I’m in charge and I need your help.”
Or, as the marketing folks would say: Got help? If not, seek it, ask for it, hire it, nurture it. By asking for help, the aspiring leader is not only being authentic, he’s also flaunting his incompleteness. It’s a win/win–well, almost. As any woman will tell you, the inability to ask for help would disqualify most men from leadership roles, but no management theory is perfect.
From Gay Hendricks’ Corporate Mystic to Ken Blanchard’s Servant Leader, a great many authors have explored the softer side of management. Unfortunately, although promoting higher consciousness is good for the publishing business, it’s had only a cursory impact on the corporate establishment.
With few exceptions, the system will not tolerate mystics or servants or openly incomplete leaders or people asking for help; and more often than not, it will punish authenticity. There is a great deal of brutality in business that is sanctioned in the name of competition. And no management theory will change things as long as leaders are measured almost exclusively by quarterly profitability. However noble their intentions, “practicing your values and principles” as the proponents of Authentic Leadership advocate, will quickly be subordinated to turning a profit when investors and board members start screaming for your head.
Nike’s Phil Knight, for example, has been wildly successful and is probably more authentic than a buffalo nickel, but unless exploiting Third World workers is part of his value system, he has chosen to compromise in order to remain competitive and profitable. Likewise, when the price of every GM car includes $2,000 in health care costs, the company’s desire to rid itself of the burden is probably not a reflection of the values of its management, but simply a competitive reality. It’s a systemic problem that requires a systemic solution. Ultimately, leadership is limited by the system in which it operates and the Harvard Business Review’s latest management theories will not change that.
Humanity is difficult to practice in a gladiatorial arena. At present, the system espouses and rewards survival of the fittest. Change the system and management will follow. I can’t prove it, but I would be willing to bet that the most self-aware and authentic leaders have left the corporate arena to work for themselves.
Now, what an fascinating study that would make!