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The Myth of Leadership Development

Developing leaders is a major strategic action for most large organizations and a multi-million dollar industry for training firms, consultants and universities. But if we have got the meaning of leadership badly wrong, much of this investment could be wasted. There are at least 3 problems with contemporary leadership theory:

1. Leaders are portrayed as occupying positions of authority over others which means that you can’t show leadership until you are in charge of people.

2. The idea that leadership is a learnable skill set fosters the impression that you can’t be a leader without training.

3. By associating leadership with emotional intelligence, what Daniel Goleman himself said is another word for maturity, the impression is created that you cannot lead until you grow up.

The bottom line is that leadership, as currently conceived, is an exclusive club for management level employees, something that those at the front line can only aspire to once they develop the relevant skills and maturity. This is a colossal waste of talent.

Dispersed Leadership and Employee Engagement

A different vision of leadership portrays it as something all employees can do. Certainly, the claim “not everyone can be a leader” is most definitely true when the focus is on what it takes to be a senior executive or even a front line manager. However, when leadership is defined simply as promoting a better way, then all employees who take a stand on any job-related issue, even in a very local, small scale manner, can show leadership to their colleagues and upward to their bosses. Because being a leader is glamorous, all employees can feel more engaged and motivated if they can see themselves as leaders even if they don’t manage anyone. So-called informal leadership means something different – informally taking charge of a group. Simply promoting new directions has nothing to do with being in charge, formally or otherwise, of a group of people.

Examples of Leadership Re-defined

” When Martin Luther King Jr. influenced the U.S. Supreme Court to rule segregation on buses unconstitutional, he had no managerial authority over that organization.

” When the Sony employee who influenced top management to adopt his proposal for PlayStation, they did not report to him.

” A new customer service employee might set an example of a better way of serving customers without being in charge of anyone.

” Whenever you influence your boss to think differently you have had a leadership impact on that person.

None of these examples entails managing the people on whom the leadership impact was felt. The leader sells the tickets for the journey and we need to upgrade our concept of management to take

care of driving the bus to the destination. Of course, further injections of leadership might be required enroute to resell the merits of the journey, but the bulk of the work in getting there requires good management skills. Management needs to be reconfigured as a nurturing, empowering and facilitative function, not just a mechanically controlling one.

Executive Development

What really gets developed in so-called leadership development programs are rounded executives. The truth is that leadership, conceived as challenging the status quo and promoting new directions, is based on youthful rebelliousness, something that is not a learnable skill set. When front line employees with no subordinates stand up for their ideas, they are showing leadership to the broader organization. So-called leadership development programs actually turn employees who are already leaders into managers. This is no bad thing. Organizations need good managers.

This view stands the conventional picture on its head: it is the front line knowledge workers who are the real leaders in organizations, not their managers. Of course, executives can also show leadership, whenever they too promote a better way.

The Benefits of Redefining Leadership

The main benefit is making it clear that all employees can be leaders and that, to do so, you don’t need all the skills associated with being in charge of people. You just need a good idea and the courage to defend it. Further potential benefits include better motivation and engagement of all employees, more innovation and front line ownership, better talent retention and less pressure on senior executives to show all the leadership a complex organization needs.

Why Make the Shift?

Leadership is based on power, traditionally the power of personality to dominate a group. This may still work in politics and public sector organizations but in businesses that compete through rapid innovation, the important power is the ability to generate new products and processes. In a war of ideas, leadership should mean the ability to successfully promote new ideas. So, the reason for making the shift in how leadership is defined is simply that the world is changing from one of stable, physical work to one of dymanic mental work.

See http://www.leadersdirect.com for more information on this and related topics. Mitch McCrimmon’s latest book, Burn! 7 Leadership Myths in Ashes was published in 2006. He is a business psychologist with over 30 years experience of leadership assessment and executive coaching.

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