Stop taking lessons in leadership, start actually leading

By Mike Cook

My goodness but we do seem to have an unlimited appetite for books, recordings and one-day seminars covering the topic of leadership in our businesses. A quick search on Amazon yields reference to over 180,000 titles on the subject. Lessons on leadership are certainly popular, at least lessons in how we think leaders should be and act.

But if we can’t get enough of these lessons on leadership then how do you explain this?

While the leadership industry is enormous, what we see worldwide is stagnant or declining employee engagement, high levels of leader turnover and career derailment, and failed leadership development efforts. So, what gives?

Based on research done by Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford University and leading management thinker, here’s what gives:

“…most leadership talks, books, and blogs describe aspirational qualities we wish our leaders possessed.”

Qualities we “wished” our leaders possessed? If we are only talking about wishes, then what qualities do our leaders possess in practice?

According to Pfeffer in an article titled “What most People Don’t Know About Leadership” in Forbes magazine: “One of the dilemmas in leadership is that the qualities and behaviors that make individuals successful in their careers —narcissism and self-aggrandizement, presenting oneself in ways that may not be how one is feeling at the time, among others — are qualities and behaviors that do not necessarily produce great group results or healthy workplaces.”

Pfeffer goes on to point out, in another article in Fortune magazine: “Sociobiology and social psychology have recognized for decades that what is good for the individual is not necessarily what is good for the group, and vice versa.” In effect what Pfeffer is saying is that what we wish for and what we are paying for are two different types of behaviors and that further, under current conditions, group and individual success are not related. An acceptance of this reality might begin to allow us to understand why many of our work environments, even those of some highly admired companies, are so toxic.

Ask yourself this, as a manager or business owner, have you ever excused, tolerated or looked the other way around toxic behavior because it was giving you the result that benefitted you most? If your answer was yes, then you begin to understand some of why workplace engagement remains at such low levels and has been at those levels for at least twenty years.

So are we simply stuck with the toxic leader that we say we do not want?

Frankly, as Queen Gertrude spoke in Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”, this may be a case where our actions betray our words.

Pfeffer goes on to say in the Fortune article, “… and even though we say we want people who don’t self-aggrandize, we secretly like the confident, overbearing people because they provide us with confidence — emotions are contagious — and also present themselves like winners. We all want to associate with success and pick those who seemingly know what they are doing.”

In other words, we are addicted to the feelings the overbearing leader produces in us which we cannot generate on our own.

So, is there an alternative?

Yes, but not an overnight solution, because we have also become addicted to the results the toxic behavior produces. As Pfeffer goes on to point out in that same Fortune article, “It is only when we stop making excuses for what Claremont business professor Jean Lipman-Blumen has appropriately called ‘toxic leaders’ that things will change.”

In a 2009 article Gary Hamel offered a pathway for those of us who legitimately seek a solution to toxic leadership. He asserted that, “there are 6 levels of engagement and human capabilities in the work space:

Obedience: show up, do the job.

Diligence: work hard, stay focused, long hours …

Intellect: taking responsibility for their own skills.

Initiative: taking ownership for a problem, not bound by a definition of their job.

Human creativity: brought by people who ask how to do things in a fundamentally different way.

Passion and zeal: for whom their job is not only intellectually meaningful, it is indeed spiritually meaningful to them.

Current levels of engagement reflect the first three levels of Hamel’s hierarchy.

As long as we tolerate toxic leadership and allow ourselves to be held hostage to their results, we can expect that it is likely that we will never see initiative, creativity and passion spontaneously appear in our places of work.

So put down the leadership books and fire that toxic employee, you know who they are, now you know what they are costing you, and so do your good employees and they are deciding whether to go or stay based on your actions.

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He teaches in the MBA program at Western Washington University and also runs a CEO peer advisory group in the Bellingham area.


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