• 02 May 2012
  • What Do You Think?

Can the “Leadership Industry” Fulfill Its Promise?

Summing Up: Jim Heskett's readers believe leadership is teachable—to a point.
by Jim Heskett

Summing Up

How Should We Measure "Leadership Industry" Results?

Aspects of leadership can be taught, thereby providing a justification for the "leadership industry." But students of leadership (and followership) bring their own personal qualities to the task. The leadership industry in general fails in: (1) catering to customer desires for short courses that produce quick results, (2) emphasizing, and training for, ways of gaining self-knowledge, (3) providing laboratories for the application of passively learned theory, and (4) measuring results. This my take on "the sense" of the many comments in responses to this month's column.

Leadership involves, among other things, "competence and interpersonal skill" (David Wittenberg), "visionary" and "administrative" components (Gerald Nanninga), "confidence" (Garth Trumble), "the ability to empathize" (Keith Williams), being a "curious follower and a good listener" (Bill Shirley), increasingly being comfortable with the idea that "no one person is in charge of anything" any more (Charles Green), the choice of followers (Ninie), the ability to learn from "repeated failure" (Shadreck Saili), "a quest for integrity" (Adriano Pianesi), a combination of ego control and "ambition … for the institution" (Bruno Coelho), communicating "where you are going" and creating a desire on the part of others "to go and be with you" (Mike Flanagan), "high emotional stability" (Pete Ciekurs), and "authenticity … in everything we do" (Raji Gogulapati). Some of these things can be taught, justifying a leadership industry. Others require more time than customers, and therefore those who cater to them, are willing to give it. As Sharath K put it, "Leadership … needs to be learned by experimentation over a lifetime."

There is perhaps too little emphasis on the development of self-knowledge. Wendy-Anne Naidoo, for example, commented that "… leadership growth involves a journey of a deeper awareness of self and others and impact of self on others." Jackie Le Fevre pointed out that "We can learn to become consciously connected with our own values." Scott Spreier extended this idea even further as he said "… leaders can be developed, but not unless they are willing to question their values, manage their motivation, modify their behavior, and challenge and change their very identities." Kapil Kumar Sopory punctuated this thought with the comment, "It is high time our basic teaching includes some sort of spiritual lessons."

The military is often cited as being one of the most effective corners of the leadership industry. As Pete DeLisi suggested, "… the big difference between leadership development in business and … in the military is the use of leadership laboratories in the military. Military leaders learn leadership by doing it…" Jessica Cruickshank concurred, saying that "It is the practice, more than the theories, that makes (teaching leadership) an effective experience."

Measurement is the biggest challenge to the industry. There was general agreement that it takes more time than most are willing to give it. Several commented that the best source of measurement is from followers. Tan Chin Thuan's suggestion illustrates the challenge nicely when he said "The irony yet sobering measurement of leadership could well be, 'the number of people who willingly attend a leader's funeral.'" How should we measure "leadership industry" results? What do you think?

Original Article

Leadership is under fire around the world, in business, government, and other institutions. Followers appear to be exercising more and more power, thanks to such contextual changes as the rise of social networks, ubiquitous communication, greater transparency, and rising and unmet expectations. It has made the practice of leadership more complex and demanding.

This is happening at a time when individuals and organizations of all kinds spend a great deal on leadership training, which ranges from in-house leadership programs to offerings by outside organizations. It encompasses a growth industry that spans various types of endeavors. (Several of Harvard's graduate schools include the terms "leader" or "leadership" in their mission statements.)

So why is there such a disconnect in the "leadership industry" between efforts and results? That's the primary question posed by Barbara Kellerman in her somewhat dramatically titled new book, The End of Leadership. Kellerman writes with authority, having authored, co-authored, or edited twelve books on the subject of leadership as part of her contribution to the industry. "Teaching how to lead is where the money is," she reminds us.

Kellerman hypothesizes that leadership is a process involving leaders and followers functioning in a context of societal, legal, and technological change, and that training for leadership too often ignores the importance of followership (especially changing patterns of dominance and deference), concentrating instead on the individual leader operating in a narrow, somewhat static context.

She questions several common assumptions in the leadership industry, such as:

  1. "notwithstanding the ostensibly flattened hierarchy, leaders are where the action is."
  2. in the absence of measures of leadership excellence, the best measure of leadership in the private sector is financial success.
  3. "leadership can be taught to virtually anyone and everyone," often in a one-size-fits-all manner.
  4. "leadership can be learned quickly and easily."
  5. "leadership can be codified and summarized and packaged."
  6. "leadership is a profession for which a professional education is optimal."
  7. "leadership should be taught … in different professional schools for different professional audiences."

While recommending a "buyer beware" approach to the leadership industry, Kellerman still continues to believe that there are great leaders and that learning to lead is possible. However, it will require such things as a greater appreciation of the complexity of the task of preparing leaders, a broader "curriculum" that includes emphasis on followership and the context in which the task is performed, and better measurement of effectiveness.

This leaves us with several questions: Do you believe that leadership can be taught? If so, how should we measure success? If not, how do you explain the financial success of the leadership industry? Can the leadership industry fulfill its promise? What do YOU think?

To Read More:

Barbara Kellerman, The End of Leadership (New York: HarperCollins, 2012).