Leadership Limps

For a couple of years I’ve written about the “end of leadership,” about how leaders are in decline and leadership learning increasingly is in question.

There is no evidence that this trend has been reversed. To the contrary, it has been confirmed, not disconfirmed.

Three recent signifiers:

First, Americans are more dubious than ever about the efficiency and integrity of those leading their most important institutions. President Obama remains at or near the lowest approval ratings of his presidency, while Congress is held in still lower repute, its approval ratings in the single digits. Similarly, various government agencies including the IRS, the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, even the Center for Disease Control and Prevention have been either mired in scandal or exposed as falling down on the job. Moreover the midterm elections came and went with two thirds of the American people not bothering even to go to the polls.

Nor is the government alone in its affliction. As Peter Baker pointed out in the New York Times, public confidence in virtually every major institution of American life continues to fall, including organized religion, the military, the Supreme Court, public schools, the media, the medical and criminal justice systems, and small business. This continuing deterioration could, of course, be as much about those being led as about those doing the leading. Either way, between the two there is a major disconnect.

Second, though business schools continue to maintain that they are ideal places in which to learn leadership, the students that they profess to teach are not so quick to buy what’s being sold. The evidence suggests that they understand full well that no single MBA course or for that matter group of courses can turn sows’ ears into silk purses. The best that business schools can do is to serve as incubators in which future leaders can grow, slowly. Moreover it behooves these schools to send at least two messages: that leaders now are more vulnerable than they used to be, much more vulnerable; and that leadership has gone from being a solo act to being a collaborative one. In other words, the line between being a leader and being a follower increasingly is fungible.

Finally there is this sobering note. For ten years the Financial Times backed by McKinsey has given out an award for the best business book of the year. First the FT develops a “long list,” which then gets whittled down to a short list, and finally to a single winner.* In a piece by Andrew Hill on the selection process, he found that, contrary to his original expectation, good books on leadership and management are few and far between. “However hard executives may search for formulas to help them run their companies better,” Hill wrote, “truly original and readable books on leadership and management are rare. Of the hundreds submitted over 10 years, fewer than 30 books that fall into that category have made the long list, eight have reached the final and none has so far won.”

What Hill is saying, in short, is that the field of leadership and management is intellectually impoverished. It is poor soil in which to grow good leaders.

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*In 2012, The End of Leadership made the long list.

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