Leadership Coach & HR Consultant

In a recent article, I discussed the implications of confusing leadership with power and how this can be counterproductive in a service/knowledge economy (see: www.lemauricien.com/article/demystifying-leadership). In this article, I discuss some of the implications of this confusion of leadership with power and of the lack of clarity regarding what leadership is all about, on leadership development.

It turns out that when leadership is confused with power (and position), any proposal for a leadership development programme gives rise to a number of interesting reactions. First of all, due to the fact that for many people, including those in senior positions, leadership can only be found at the very top of the organisation, anyone proposing to implement such a programme creates the impression that she or he is questioning the legitimacy of those occupying the highest echelons of the organisation – this is almost tantamount to ‘lèse-majesté’.

Secondly, the belief that leadership is exercised only at the top of the organisation is also related to the assumption that if someone is at the top, he or she is de facto exercising leadership. After all they are called ‘leaders’. Nothing can be further from the truth.  There are many occupying the top echelons of organisations who do not exercise any leadership.  There are many who are called leaders, or who call themselves leaders, who have absolutely no notion of what leadership is all about. Their behaviour is sometimes very close that of the ‘alpha male’ – a behaviour characterised by domination, arrogance, and a tendency to inspire fear in others in order to ensure that they are never challenged however limited they may be. Such people generally surround themselves with a bunch of sycophants with potential long-term disastrous consequences for the organisation.

In such a context, any proposal for leadership development is likely to be contemptuously brushed aside. And even if such a programme is implemented, the arrogance characterising these pseudo-leaders would prevent them from benefiting from it. Their arrogance would make it difficult for them to question the impact of their behaviour on others, to be open to the possibility of being wrong and to realise that they need to change. This resistance to learning and change, represents a failure to ‘walk the talk’ ironically by the very people aspiring to implement significant change in their organisation. This can only result in cynicism and low engagement.

The negative impact on engagement is much more visible among millennials (a significant component of today’s workforce) who have not been brought up in an autocratic, command-and-control environment. In fact, one may hypothesize that much of the negative stereotyping regarding millennials is actually an attempt to deflect attention from the leadership failure in many organisations. Unlike earlier generations, millennials are not willing to put up with toxic bosses.  They simply walk out. The irony is that instead of questioning the leadership failure, the tendency is to place the blame on the victims, i.e. on the millennials themselves.

Thirdly, the assumption that leadership concerns only those at the top of organisations, creates the impression that leadership development is irrelevant for those at the lower levels. This is another fallacy as far as leadership development is concerned. It also negatively impacts the effectiveness of such development programmes on the organisation as a whole. Research shows that the effectiveness of such programmes rests on the extent to which they are disseminated across various levels of the organisation and on the degree to which the various subsystems (recruitment and selection, performance management, succession planning, compensation etc) are aligned with the leadership framework and related competency model. This is unlikely to happen if it is erroneously believed that leadership concerns only the top of the organisation.

Finally, the lack of clarity regarding the leadership process results in a situation where the word leadership is tagged to a range of training programmes which are not even remotely connected with the leadership process. This becomes evident when one carefully examines the detailed contents of the courses.  This lack of clarity is also evident in the mission statements of a number of many tertiary education institutions. They aspire to develop the ‘tomorrow’s leaders’. And yet, when one examines the programmes on offer, one finds nothing that directly addresses the leadership development of the faculty and of the students.  It would appear that many of these institutions have not reflected on what leaders do when they are at their best and how one goes about developing these leadership behaviours.

All said and done, leadership, i.e. the ability to mobilise others to want to struggle for shared aspirations (Kouzes & Posner), can be learned.  Leadership involves intrinsic motivation based on autonomy, mastery and purpose (Daniel Pink) as well as behaviours demonstrating self-awareness, authenticity, courage and humility.  What is required is the willingness to learn and practise certain simple behaviours, to ‘walk the talk’, and to let go of the behaviours that are counter-productive.  To be effective such leadership development programmes need to be disseminated across various levels of the organisation where relevant subsystems are fully aligned with the leadership framework – a framework that reflects the values and priorities of the organisation. Failure to implement such development programmes (that would include not only classroom training but also stretch assignments, special projects, regular feedback and coaching) will jeopardise the long-term future of the organisation because of the negative impact on engagement, service quality, innovation, strategy deployment and ultimately on the bottom-line.