On Teaching Leadership … and Entrepreneurship

In my most recent book, The End of Leadership, I raised some serious questions about the Leadership Industry. In particular I raised some serious questions about teaching leadership, such as how do we know when we get it right.

Becoming a leader has of course become a mantra. The business of teaching people how to lead has exploded in the last thirty, forty years, with lots of people making lots of money on the generally unquestioned assumption that developing leaders is a legitimate, even proven undertaking.

But, as I write in The End of Leadership, “for all the large sums of money invested in the leadership industry, and for all the large amounts of time spent on leaching leadership, learning leadership, and studying leadership, the metrics are mostly missing. There is scant evidence, objective evidence, to confirm that this massive, expensive, thirty-plus-year effort has paid off.”

When I wrote the book I was aware, well aware, that I was biting the hand that feeds me. I was similarly aware that some of my colleagues were likely to look askance at someone who had the temerity to question the legitimacy of what they do. So far I’ve not been tarred and feathered – the book was published in 2012 – and indeed the book has received modest recognition. (For example, Choice, a trade magazine for librarians, named it an “outstanding academic title of 2013.”) But my argument did not catch on – the leadership industry continues to thrive, despite my doubts about what we really know about teaching how to lead.

In some sense then it was heartening to learn a few days ago that I was not alone – I was not the only skeptic. To be sure, in an article in the Wall Street Journal (5/7/14), Carl Schramm, University Professor at Syracuse University, did not raise questions about teaching “leadership.” But he did raise questions – the same sorts of questions – about teaching “entrepreneurship.” I at least would argue, same thing.

“Many colleges and universities across the country offer courses and programs in ‘entrepreneurship,’” Schramm writes. “Are they worthwhile? Entrepreneurship is apparently an occupational category now, yet when it comes to judging the value of what they teach, its practitioners are flying blind.” Schramm goes on to point out some of the problems endemic to teaching entrepreneurship, including the lack of academic consensus on what works for a new business, a teaching approach that is “cobbled together from strategic-planning and venture-finance insights,” and case studies that can easily be cherry-picked to “conform” to the teacher’s belief about how businesses should start.

The parallels between what I call the leadership industry and what might be called the entrepreneurship industry are striking. In both cases it’s time for what Schramm calls “an evidence-based revolution.” And in both cases it’s time for those professing to teach how-to – how to be a leader and how to be an entrepreneur – to be more honest with those expecting the keys to the kingdom.


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