Monday, June 11, 2020

Leaders all the way down

Why imitation may be flattery, but isn’t a good path to leadership.

When you look around at many organizational leaders today, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that they aren’t truly being leaders—they’re just acting. They’re doing what it is they think leaders do. So how did the the leaders they so busily copy choose their actions? The same way. There’s an endless cycle of imitation going on. And, when you think about it, leadership that imitates what others do is no leadership at all.
Most people have heard the old story about the guru who explains that the earth travels through space supported on the back of four gigantic elephants. One of his pupils, trying to be cute, asks what could possibly be holding the elephants up.

“A gigantic turtle,” replies the guru.

The pupil can’t wait to ask the next question.

“So what is holding up the turtle, Master?”

“Another turtle,” the guru replies.

“And what holds that turtle up?” the pupil asks.

The guru regards his pupil wearily and holds up a hand. “Before you ask,” he says, “It’s turtles all the way down.”

Leadership can be like that. Every week, scores of people take up leadership positions for the first time. Not being sure what to do, they look around at the leaders who have gone before them and copy what they do. If they look for books to help them, they find that most of those books are filled with stories about the exploits of famous leaders of the past. Their message too is that to be a leader you have only to copy what these former paragons of leadership did. Even the hundreds of leadership training events each week are mostly taken up with recycling ideas from the past.

Is it any wonder, then, that most organizations are filled with people walking around acting the part of a leader—doing all the things that they’ve been told leaders should do—while almost no one is actually attempting to be a leader?

Acting the part

If you look up the word “leader” in a dictionary, you’ll find a range of definitions. Those that seem most relevant to organizations include “being the person in charge of a group or organization,” “being the person that others follow,” and “being the most successful or advanced person in some defined field.” Only two of these definitions of a leader, it seems to me, can be filled by someone whose way of being a leader is to act in a “leaderly” way by following what past leaders have done.

You can certainly be the person in charge of a group or organization if you’re only acting the part. You can fill such a role even if you’re incompetent, confused, or plain terrified—all states that are far more common amongst actual leaders than you might believe. Being in charge is a purely hierarchical statement. It says nothing about the quality or usefulness of what you do as a result of being in a leadership position.

You can also be the person that others follow, even if you’re merely acting a part. Indeed that’s pretty much the current state of affairs. The joke about the turtles that go all the way down hinges on what’s called an infinite regression: a question answered by the same statement every time, no matter how often you ask it. Management today is mostly based on a similar infinite regression. People learn to be leaders by acting the part, based on repeating what they see existing leaders doing. How did those leaders choose what to do? By imitating the leaders before them. And so it goes, in a potentially infinite series, with everyone acting a part based on imitating those before them.

That’s why many myths about leadership and management are so resistant to change. The actions that they produce aren’t there because they make sense or because people have though about them long and carefully. They remain because each generation of new leaders simply copies them from the generation before. (Generations of leaders come around much more often than generations of people, since leaders are appointed, not born to the role. Each time a leader moves on, or a new leadership role is created, a new generation is produced somewhere.)

True leadership

Only my last definition of a leader, “being the most successful or advanced person in some defined field,” defies production by imitation. Unfortunately for all those who still cling to the hope that leadership can be taught by means of principles derived from the actions of past leaders, this is the only definition that really makes a difference.

You can fill a hierarchical position labeled “leader” regardless of your competence or ability, as is proved every week. Other people will follow you if you look the part, but heaven knows where you will lead them. But being the most advanced and successful person in your field—however large or small that field may be—will not happen as a result of imitation. Only those who grapple with problems anew and find fresh answers, relevant to current circumstances, can meet that definition.

Many of our problems today are caused directly by so-called leaders acting the part and repeating the past, instead of making the time and effort needed to think through problems afresh, maybe finding better ones in the process—or at least ones that are better suited to today’s particular circumstances. Faux-leadership is little more than following a script written by someone else. Often that’s someone who has never been the leader of anything at all, but merely writes about it on a theoretical basis.

If you must copy, never copy what someone else does. Look for someone who has found their own answers to leadership’s challenges and copy how they found them: by continually thinking, exploring, testing, and revising. That’s the only way you’ll ever become a true leader—at least according to the only definition that matters.

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SpiKe said...

My last boss was the total stereotype of the hard-nosed, grumpy boss who expected more and more from her staff without giving any recognition in return because that was what we were paid for. She truly was following some sort of pre-defined leadership script.

Whenever there were problems with the business she would just delve deeper into this script and push us harder, make more threats, etc. It was not surprising to see those same problems happen again a few months down the line. It amazed me how she never considered that it could well have been her approach that was exasperating these problems.
Organize IT

4:14 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Spike.

I've encountered people like this too. The trouble with someone who thinks that leading is following some script is that they go on doing it, come what may.

That makes them both rigid and myopic. Hardly good qualities for anyone trying to be successful in today's business world.

Keep reading, my friend.

7:26 AM  

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