Leadership is possibly the most written, lectured, TED-talked and blogged about topic in management. Companies in the US alone are reckoned to spend $14bn-$20bn on leadership development and training every year. It is a staple of business courses. Yet despite the confidence with which formulae are dispensed for success in transformational, authentic, servant or level-five leadership, to name some current varieties, it may also be the least understood.

Consider: never has public trust in corporate leaders been so low. That may be no surprise. Among contributory causes to the crash of 2008, leadership failure ranks high, as it does in the rule of greed and the rise of inequality. Other leaders do not trust them: witness the increasing speed with which boards push peers out of top office.

© Andrew Baker

That is no surprise either, given the finding of a survey of research studies of leadership compiled by the Center for Creative Leadership, a training provider, that half of all managers and leaders are seen as “a disappointment, incompetent, a mis-hire or a complete failure” in their current role. In another study, 35 per cent of US employees said they would forgo a pay rise to see their direct supervisors fired. In short, writes Stanford’s Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer in Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time: “The leadership industry has failed.”

That may be because no one can pin down what leadership is. One quite persuasive theory is that the notion was born out of need as much as observation, as a simplified explanation for success or failure that helps to make human sense of a threateningly complicated world. In other words, leadership is a comforting myth, strikingly similar to the role of religion as described by Sigmund Freud.

But it may be a harmful myth. Prof Pfeffer charges that leadership gurus do neither employees nor leaders any favours by setting out a sanctified ideal of leadership that has more in common with lay preaching than social science.

Leaders mostly are not self-effacing, truth-telling, builders of trust, he says, because if they were, they would not be leaders in the first place. Being good at the day job does not get would-be leaders very far. To reach the top they have to want to lead, which means acting like a leader, deploying organisational realpolitik in which ambition, confidence, acting ability and bending people to their version of the truth — yes, think Donald Trump — are all critical.

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’ “reality distortion field” — his ability to persuade others the world was as he saw it — was much mocked. But the laugh was on the mockers. It was Jobs’ strength that he grasped the power of self-fulfilling prophecy, management’s secret weapon. As Prof Pfeffer underlines, “the ability to distort reality is a crucial — maybe the most crucial — leadership skill”.

This is undoubtedly a less inspirational account of leadership than that put about by the leadership industry. But if it is true — and much research says it is — there are profound practical implications for filling the acknowledged leadership void and addressing the shortcomings at the top that are implicated in the financial and other scandals (think of Volkswagen), toxic workplaces, employee disengagement and sabotaged careers that litter the business landscape.

First, if too many of today’s leaders do not use their power for good, one answer is to get more of the good into power. That means getting real: paradoxically, getting over themselves, becoming less squeamish and learning about the dark arts. Believing in a “just world” where goodness reaps its own reward is unfortunately a better predictor of career failure than success.

For those wanting to use their influence to do better by workers and shareholders, putting themselves in a position to do so is the equal imperative number one. There is a similar lesson for the rest of us, Prof Pfeffer says: beware of the comforting myth, and of colluding in your own exploitation. Look out for yourself first, because organisations built in the image of today’s leaders will not do it for you.

A second answer is to stand the yearning for leadership on its head. If good (in both senses) leaders are so rare, the solution is to build organisations that need them less. Over time resilient systems outperform collections of individualistic stars. Despite recent troubles, it was once joked that Toyota was so stable in purpose and operation that the arrival of a new chief executive was much like changing a light bulb.

At the end of Bertolt Brecht’s great play Life of Galileo, one of the scientist’s followers cries bitterly: “Unhappy the land that has no heroes!” To which Galileo quickly retorts: “No, unhappy the land that needs heroes.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article