The Inane Idea of Leadership


I’ve heard and read more than I can bear about ‘Leadership’.


Browse through the Group posts on LinkedIn and you’ll see hundreds on the subject (these are from the Project Management group):

These took me just five minutes to find.

I’ll never read a single one of them, not only because of the split infinitives, and the incorrect capitalisations, but because the entire concept, like its twin ‘success’, is utterly inane and entirely chimerical. Though I have to admit that ‘The Leadership Style of Anna Hazare’ does tickle my fancy a little (it turns out that he’s a 74-year-old former soldier fighting corruption in India, but I couldn’t read beyond the point where the writer introduced ‘four types’ of leadership).

I suspect that ‘leadership’ is originally an American concept, even if it’s caught on like a global epidemic amongst those who read and write for LinkedIn. I think of strong-jawed pioneers leading waggon trains into the unknown, slaughtering Indians as they go. I think of the ‘right stuff’ that took America’s astronauts to the Moon. I think of George W Bush leading the nation on a futile expedition to Iraq and of Donald Trump vowing to ‘make America great again’, by which he means ‘the greatest’. It’s essentially a military ideal closely linked to conquest, and it’s lauded in a country where too many Generals have made it to the White House.

I don’t believe in ‘leadership’. I don’t believe there’s an important quality you can distil from the mess of other qualities and characteristics that ordinary or exceptional people possess that is the very essence of ‘leadership’. Those who define it, train themselves in it, or chase after it are deluded. Those who crave it in others, wanting merely to follow, are yet more foolish.

Leaders find themselves ‘leading’, the best of them reluctantly, in virtue of their ideas, their courage, their determination, their principles, and their intelligence, sometimes entirely in virtue of their ability to delegate decision-making to others, or to achieve a consensus amongst their peers. The best are cajoled into the role (just as the UK’s Speaker of the House of Commons must be dragged to his chair following his election). The best don’t shoulder their way forwards and upwards. Sadly, it’s all too often delusion, ignorance, obstinacy, ruthlessness, self-interest, cruelty, skilful myth-making or obsession that inspires obedience in some and makes others into leaders. I think of Putin.

Let’s not forget that what we admire in today’s leaders we might revile or reject in them tomorrow. ‘Fred, the Shred’ who led the Royal Bank of Scotland to supremacy amongst the UK’s high street banks was later stripped of his knighthood when the bank nearly failed. Even Churchill, the right leader in 1940, was defeated at a General Election before victory was won in the East. Cecil Rhodes is not what he was.

Political leadership usually ends in failure. In business too, elevating the concept of ‘leadership’ to pre-eminence in the Pantheon of business ideals is plain stupid. Let’s hear much less about it and about its equally inane, intellectually vacuous twin, ‘success’.

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