“Another significant source of stupidity in firms we came across was a deep faith in leadership. In most organisations today, senior executives are not content with just being managers. They want to be leaders. They see their role as not just running their business but also transforming their followers. They talk about ‘vision’, ‘belief’ and ‘authenticity’ with great verve. All this sounds like our office buildings are brimming with would-be Nelson Mandelas. However, when you take a closer look at what these self-declared leaders spend their days doing, the story is quite different.
No matter how hard you search there is little – if any – leadership to be found. What most executives actually spend their days doing is sitting in meetings, filling in forms and communicating information. In other words, they are bureaucrats. But being a bureaucrat is not particularly exciting. It also doesn’t look very good on your business card. To make their roles seem more important and exciting than they actually are, corporate executives become leadership addicts. They read leadership books. They give lengthy talks to yawning subordinates about leadership. But most importantly they attend many courses, seminars and meetings with ‘leadership’ somewhere in the title. The content of many of these leadership-development courses would not be out of place in a kindergarten or a New Age commune. There are leadership-development courses where participants are asked to lead a horse around a yard, use colouring-in books, or build Lego – all in the name of developing them as leaders.
At least $14 billion gets spent every year on leadership development in the US alone yet, according to researchers such as Jeffrey Pfeffer at Stanford, it has virtually no impact on improving the quality of leaders. In our own research, we found that most employees in knowledge-intensive firms didn’t need much leadership. People working at the coalface were self-motivated and often knew their jobs much better than their bosses did. Their superiors’ cack-handed attempts to be leaders were often seen as a pointless distraction from the real work. George, a manager in a high-tech engineering firm, told us he saw himself as a very ‘open’. When we asked his subordinates what he actually did, they told us that he provides breakfast in the morning and runs an annual beer-tasting.”