Why the Leadership Development Industry Fails

businesswoman-climbing-stairsIf the first duty of a leader is to define reality, that is, to tell it like it is, then it is easy to see the reason for the global leadership crisis and the abject failure of the leadership development industry to make a difference – we live in a culture that insists that we can define reality for ourselves in defiance of objective reality. Yet the comprehension of reality is where wisdom begins, and leadership is impossible without wisdom.

 I was preparing a speech in praise of the emperor in which I was to utter any number of lies to win the applause of people who knew very well that they were lies.  –Saint Augustine in Confessions

The mortification of Augustine over the irony of the situation in which he was placed by his position as a celebrity speaker at the court of the Roman emperor should ring a few bells in postmodern ears. After all, in the Age of PC, who in the corporate cauldron or the political cesspool does not from time to time utter untruths in order to curry favor with the powers that be?

Playing fast and loose with the truth is a human failing well-documented from the earliest times, but in the postmodern West it has been elevated to the status of a devotional ritual that is performed intermittently throughout every day by people in politics, business, and social relationships of all descriptions. Trained to tell it not like it is, but rather as one would like it to be, or as those in authority insist it must be, most people are predisposed to say what is useful as opposed to what is true.

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And so, politicians say whatever it takes to get elected; corporate executives put a spin on practically every word they speak; job-seekers unashamedly pass off elaborate works of fiction as trustworthy curricula vita rum; academics parrot the prevailing orthodoxy in their quest for tenure; and the media, mainline and social, positively revel in the post-truth atmosphere of the postmodern West.

How can a leader possibly inspire belief, confidence, and commitment in situations where disillusionment, cynicism, and self-delusion have infected most of the population? The predominant worldview in western society is neither receptive to leadership nor primed to produce people capable of it. And this is the central challenge to all leaders and the leadership development industry.

In a recently published media interview, Brigid Carroll, an associate professor at the University of Auckland School of Business rightly deplored what Harvard Business Review called “the great training robbery,” with billions squandered by business worldwide on ineffective leadership development programs. However, her own rather esoteric view of leadership provides no meaningful alternative.

Carroll, author of a new book, Responsible Leadership: Realism and Romanticism, co-edited with British academic Steve Kempster, disparages what she deems the inadequacy of the traditional understanding of leadership, which she believes focuses on individual charismatic leadership. She prefers instead to see leadership as asking the big questions, like “sustainability, social responsibility, innovation, marketplace shifts, and inequality” and seeking solutions through “groups connecting and holding responsibilities.”

Now the sophistry employed here is typical of the regime of political correctness under which we groan, and also the very industry she claims to be debunking. When she disdains the idea of charismatic leadership, she is attacking a straw man – books repudiating the charisma model have been around for ages e.g. Built to Last by Collins and Porras, and The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner. But, more serious in view of her credentialed status, is her failure to define reality.

Her so-called big questions are not what leadership is about; they are some of the many issues that require leadership to resolve them. We must first understand the nature of leadership before we can apply it to any issue at all. Moreover, “sustainability, social responsibility, innovation, marketplace shifts, and inequality”, are nothing more than meaningless abstractions, politically correct buzzwords, as long as they remain cut adrift from objective reality.

Of course, defining them in terms of objective reality requires an understanding of the nature of things, what is good for them and what is bad for them. That alone is what will enable one to know precisely what it is that needs to be sustained and how, what actually constitutes social responsibility and according to what ethical norms, whether innovations will help or harm people and the planet, how marketplace shifts are the result of human choice rather than some brute determinism, and how we might acquire a substantive grasp of the causes of inequality and the extent to which its eradication is possible or even desirable.

These issues certainly require technical solutions, but they are also all, in the first instance, moral challenges that demand clear discernment of the good and the bad involved in each case, and then the will to choose the good and oppose the bad. A leader should never begin to apply technical solutions until he or she is certain that the right judgment, based on the objective truth about things, has been made, and people have been inspired to embrace that judgment and cooperate in working for the good that has been defined and justified.

While she is certainly correct to maintain that leadership development programs are often formulaic, Carroll’s opinion that “The leadership literature seemed concerned with petty organizational issues, relationships between direct reports and managers, and appeared to be obsessed with the psychology of leadership” only emphasizes the degree to which leadership development is compromised by academic blinders and political correctness.

No one is ever going to tackle the big “pressing contemporary issues” effectively and efficiently until they have achieved organizational integrity and sound working relationships and teamwork, and those essentials depend almost entirely on the psychology of leadership. For better or worse, all parents, teachers, managers, and politicians necessarily use the psychology of leadership in pursuit of their objectives, and obviously, they are more likely to succeed if they have a sound understanding of that essential foundation.

Insight regarding human nature and the human condition, the truth about who we are and how we ought to live, is precisely the ground where leadership development either succeeds or fails. Leadership development that does not address worldview, culture, morality, virtue, motivation, perception, cognition, attitudes and emotion, socialization, personality, character, and creativity, is simply not leadership development in any meaningful sense of the term. Carroll further undermines her own thesis as she attempts to give it more substance:

It’s political work. It’s forming alliances and coalitions. It’s finding ways to speak across differences and boundaries. It’s coordinating across multiple levels, from CEOs to grassroots. It’s about multi-sector work, crossing out the private sector, working with the not-for-profit sector or the volunteer sector…Let’s stop thinking about leadership as about ‘me managing my team’ and let’s start thinking about it as ‘me in dialogue with multiple stakeholders all with their own agendas and interests and nonetheless we have to forge a way forward.’

Politics, alliances, and coalitions, as we are all too aware, are often injurious to the well-being of people in a community, a company, or a country. It all depends on the ethical position taken by the people driving the politics and forming the alliances and coalitions. As Aristotle explained: “Virtue must be the concern of any state deserving of the name: for without this goal the community becomes a mere alliance…” And alliances more often than not exist for utilitarian purposes and tend to collapse, with predictable collateral damage, once their usefulness wears thin.

Carroll’s call for a multi-sector focus instead of seeing leadership as “me managing my team” betrays something of the disingenuous insistence of political correctness on an ill-defined “tolerance” in a social milieu in which trust has been radically undermined at grass root levels. How on earth are we to foster healthy multi-sector relationships if we are unable, in the first instance, to inspire empathy, compassion, and teamwork within our immediate teams?

Notwithstanding her claims of ground-breaking revelations, Carroll’s views propounded in the interview, and presumably in her book, are broadly representative of much of the thinking coming out of academia. No doubt, many corporate head honchos would find her prognostications comforting, despite the fact that things have never been worse at the coalface and in communities at large.

In a 2016 Harvard Business Review article on leadership in the tech industry, Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield tackle the cultural challenges leaders face in that vibrant sector of the economy. “The tech industry’s combination of high-velocity competition, complexity, global talent, and interdependence among rivals makes it a truly unique environment, requiring a distinct set of leadership skills.”

What is of particular significance for anyone interested in leadership development is that, after their very convincing explanation of the somewhat peculiar demands of leadership in the tech industry, the two prime solutions proposed by Grenny and Maxfield refer directly to the essential cultural flaw that impacts all business categories and politics as well. They prescribe establishing two cultural norms:

  • “Create a culture where anyone can speak up and share his or her concerns when it’s in the interest of the mission. Truth is power, and dialogue is the antidote to elephants in the room. If you can’t talk about a problem, you can’t solve it.”
  •  Build ““a culture of accountability—one where people hold their managers, their peers, their customers and their direct reports accountable for the commitments they make.”

In a nutshell, they see defining reality, up, down, and sideways, as the only way to make leadership effective in their industry. But that is true of leadership in all situations and circumstances. And it is precisely what the culture of the postmodern West stifles at every turn. “What reality? We make our own reality; There is no objective truth, so there is no right and wrong; The past can teach us nothing…we have all the answers; Success is the sole criterion.”

Sadly, the utilitarians are unconcerned about what is really the soul criterion, the need for meaning and purpose, and a true vision of the Good, the essential foundation for the proper flourishing and fulfillment of humanity. Until this core issue is addressed, all talk of “sustainability, social responsibility, innovation, marketplace shifts, and inequality” will be so much hot air, and the leadership crisis will continue to mock the fantasy of a technocratic utopia.

The arrogant belief that human beings can define and reshape reality for themselves arose in tandem with the rejection of the cultural heritage of western civilization. The wasteland of state schooling denies young people proper intellectual formation by its exclusion of classic literature, history, and philosophy, imposing what amounts to a closeting regime of censorship. This is the frontline of the war between a truth-seeking, liberating, fully human society, and the cold, calculating, utilitarian mindset of the “disenchanted” West. How do we turn back the tide of untruth?

I was born of Afrikaner stock but raised in an Anglophile colonial society that taught me to see Plato, Shakespeare, Bach, and Goya as essential parts of my heritage, and I never once doubted the corresponding value of that heritage for the African people in whose midst we lived. That heritage opened my mind to allegedly alien cultural riches like The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Analects of Confucius, and the Bhagavad Gita, and the unshakeable conviction that all people need to know the great ideas of human cultural endeavor. As prominent scholars like Christopher Dawson, Remi Brague, and Pierre Manent have so ably pointed out, there is no part of the world that has not been indelibly shaped by European modernity, which in turn, was a product of the civilization built on the foundations of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome.

The suppression of that cultural heritage and its replacement by the anarchic junk culture of postmodernism has seen the emergence of an aggressive irrationalism and the recrudescence of barbarism, understood in the words of Jose Ortega y Gasset as “An absence of standards to which an appeal might be made.” Utility is not a standard since it has no set reference point other than the individual will, reducing morality to a no-holds-barred, survival-of-the-fittest, free-for-all. This is the reality the leadership development industry refuses to define. Roger Scruton, in the preface to Culture Counts, gave eloquent expression to the challenge.

This posture of skepticism towards the classics displays a profound misjudgment. For the great works of western culture are remarkable for the distance that they maintained from the norms and orthodoxies that gave birth to them. Only a very shallow reading of Chaucer or Shakespeare would see those writers as endorsing the societies in which they lived, or would overlook the far more important fact that their works hold mankind to the light of moral judgment, and examine, with all the love and all the pity that it calls for, the frailty of human nature. It is precisely the aspiration towards universal truth, towards a Gods-eye perspective on the human condition, that is the hallmark of western culture.

Originally published at BizCatalsyst360

Andre van Heerden

Andre van Heerden

Andre van Heerden heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership: Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere. He leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas.

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