As I contemplate leadership failures in some major organisations, in Australia and elsewhere, it strikes me that the people responsible for those failures have not been meeting the norms of behaviour expected of responsible adults. For example, it doesn’t seem like responsible adult behaviour to persist in charging customers for services that they haven’t received.
That has me wondering whether the prevailing emphasis on inspiring organisational leadership rather than efficient administration could be responsible for a decline in the quality of senior executives. It seems to have become possible for some people to rise to the top by learning how to present a vision and flatter stakeholders, without acquiring management skills and business ethics along the way. Perhaps we are seeing a shallow leadership culture displacing the long-standing management culture that encouraged business leaders to take pride in being trustworthy.
Should the gurus who began promoting an emphasis on organisational leadership about 30 years ago be held responsible for the shallowness of leadership in some modern organisations today? As that question arose in my mind I decided to revisit a book that I had read about 30 years ago - On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis, a famous leadership guru. I had a vague recollection that Bennis argued that organisations need leaders, not managers.
My recollection was correct. The book contains a heading: “Leaders, Not Managers”. Under that heading there is a list of differences between leaders and managers. For example: “The manager administers; the leader innovates” and “The manager has his eye always on the bottom line; the leader has his eye on the horizon”. I don’t see recognition that organisations need leaders who have both high-level management and leadership capabilities.
However, the concept of leadership that Bennis advanced is far from shallow. He can’t be held responsible for readers who think leadership just involves mastering jargon about visions and stakeholders.
Bennis presents the view that “leaders are people who are able to express themselves fully”. He explains:
“The key to full self-expression is understanding one’s self and the world, and the key to understanding is learning – from one’s own life and experience”.
Bennis lists the ingredients of leadership as: a guiding vision; the passion to pursue that vision; integrity (encompassing self-knowledge, candour and maturity); trustworthiness; and curiosity and daring.
Those seem to be characteristics that would be displayed by any flourishing adult. As noted in an earlier post, human flourishing also requires alertness to the new opportunities emerging in changing circumstances.
That makes me to wonder whether there is any difference between the characteristics of a good leader and those displayed by any flourishing adult human. Toastmasters International, an organisation dedicated to assisting members to acquire leadership skills, as well as to improve communication skills, suggests one possible difference: “Great leaders inspire others to follow them”.
That difference is probably not important. Flourishing adults tend to display attributes required to attract followers, even when they don’t seek to be followed. They can’t avoid setting an example of behaviour that some others might choose to follow. As implied in the mission of Toastmasters clubs, the development of communication and leadership skills results in “greater self-confidence and personal growth”.
Perhaps I should try to sum up. It does seem possible that recent leadership problems in some major organisations are attributable to a shallow leadership culture. Some of these problems might have been avoided with a more conventional management culture - less emphasis on public relations and more emphasis on maintaining efficient and ethical management practices. Leadership gurus, such as Warren Bennis, might have contributed to such problems by downplaying the importance management skills. Nevertheless, the ingredients of leadership identified by Bennis are characteristics of flourishing adults - people who act with integrity. Organisations need leaders who have both high-level management and leadership capabilities.
One question which I have not addressed is whether it is possible to identify intermediate stages in acquiring leadership capabilities. Do you have to learn to think for yourself before you can be a leader? Does Robert Kegan’s concept of self-authoring represent an intermediate stage in development of leadership capabilities?