Paying lip service to leadership

Aug 07 2014 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

Various surveys over the years have told us that something like nine out of 10 American corporations offer their executives or managers some kind of leadership training. A feeling in my gut says even that’s probably an under-estimate. And an even more recent feeling in my gut says at least half of that training is full of hooey.

Leadership is still a big business. Leadership gurus such as Marshall Goldsmith and Jim Kouzes have a huge audience around the world via their books, websites and keynotes.

"We need better executive talent," it's being said, "and companies are desperate for real leadership". Absolutely true.

Companies admit there is a shortage of trained leaders, and they have to help develop leaders from their own ranks. Couldn't agree more.

So the world's corporations are ready to institute whatever it takes to identify and nurture leaders for the sake of the organization... Hogwash. I ain't buying it.

I see precious little actual evidence beyond HR-driven projects (and we know what an elephant's graveyard of good ideas that phrase conjures up) that things will change any time soon. The only question in my mind is; does all this lip service about leadership stem from schizophrenia, hypocrisy, or outright lies?

What's the difference? Well schizophrenia is an unfortunate condition in which the person doesn't know what they're saying is madness - and they mean it when they say it.

Hypocrisy suggests they suspect it's not true, but they say it because it makes them feel good and they can sleep at night.

Lying just means they can't even convince themselves it's true, and they're hoping we're dumb enough to buy it.

Is it Corporate Schizophrenia?
On the surface, this seems a defensible position. 50 years ago, the writer William H Whyte Jr wrote the seminal work, "The Organization Man", which looked at the emerging corporate world and the idea of the "professional manager".

As far back as 1957, he recognized a fundamental paradox: that while the big corporations claimed to believe the Protestant Work Ethic (if you're smart enough, and work hard enough, the sky's the limit) and espoused it loudly, it was patently false in their case.

Success in the 20th century multinational corporation lay in playing nicely with the other kids, keeping your nose clean and not rocking the boat.

Oh sure, there was lots of talk about "leading from the middle of the pack", but as a Canadian (and Canada is a sterling example of the nation as well-meaning but schizophrenic corporation) I can tell you what happens to any dogsled team that doesn't recognize a single leader and have everyone play their role: you wind up dead in a snow bank with very ticked-off dogs fighting each other for your frozen remains.

Companies want you to lead up to a point, but for Pete's sake stay inside the lines.

There were a lot of potential leaders who left, but even more stayed despite being frustrated. (I blame this for the skyrocketing cost of Employee Assistance programs for mental health and substance abuse, but that's just a hunch). After all, where were they going to go?

Then came the tech boom of the 90's. Suddenly anyone with ambition and a pulse was deserting the corporation to try their luck in an area where the sky really was the limit. Tom Peters proclaimed in his strident, sweaty and brilliant way that it was the era of "Brand You" - everyone was responsible for their own careers.

Many people listened and left. Those who stayed looked on enviously as people got stock options and other goodies and lived the good life. Some got fired, came back as consultants making more money and taking less flak. "Sure, we stayed", they said, "but there was another life out there - and people we knew were living it. The company had darned well be good to us or we're gone".

Then the bust came, a lot of people returned to the corporate womb. The real leaders vowed never to return - and they haven't.

The risk averse and the just-plain-tired slunk back into less well-paying but more secure corporate jobs, never to stick their necks out again. Not exactly the group you would look to in order to find tomorrow's leaders today.

Still enough people stayed that companies could believe what they were saying was true.

Maybe It's Hypocrisy?
These developments can't have been completely lost on some of the smarter people who run corporations.

At least in the previous century, companies could play Daddy to people-pay for relocations, training and benefits so people willingly sold themselves. The reason I suspect something more sinister, though, is that even this arrangement is eroding, which suggests somebody is aware of the paradox and cynically exploiting it.

The reality isn't lost on employees either. The company doesn't want to pay for training? No problem, the internet is full of blogs, websites and information that's newer and better than anything Corporate Learning and Development has, and the employee isn't beholden to anyone for acquiring it. Just don't think they're going to stay a minute longer than they have to once they've learned enough to get another job.

Studies show over half of managers dream of quitting in the next four years and working for themselves. 50 years ago that number was less than one in 10. Benefits and perks are the major compelling reason talented people stay in big companies. So what are companies doing? Slashing benefits and perks.

In fact I suspect that if affordable, transferable, health insurance did exist in America, the number of folks running for the doors would be much higher.

Frankly, I'd use this information to identify future leaders cheaply and easily. Go into every employee's computer (companies are doing this already, so I'm not suggesting anything new) and do a word search for a file marked "Business Plan". Your true leaders have one hidden away, just waiting for the next buy-out to get the seed money. If they don't have one, they're not leadership material, but they're not going anywhere so you don't have to worry about them.

Still, it's awfully hard to sleep at night knowing a hefty chunk of your employees are only there every day for lack of alternatives, so companies create hypocritical scenarios. As Jeff Goldblum said in "The Big Chill", "I don't know anyone who gets through the day without a couple of big juicy rationalizations".

Or maybe they're lying?
The third alternative is that Captains of Industry know all this and are past even caring if they can look themselves in the mirror. They are cynically exploiting the situation, paying lip service to leadership development while doing very little about growing their own folks, because the expense hits their personal budgets, takes too long to show ROI and anyone they really want is working for more money somewhere else. Such cynicism actually gives me the willies, and I choose to reject this notion.

Personally, I lean towards hypocrisy. I don't believe that this many companies can put their heads together and perpetrate this fraud in concert and on purpose. It suggests an ability to cooperate, plan and keep secrets that they haven't demonstrated they possess. I don't believe in complex, Byzantine corporate conspiracy theories any more. Most just aren't competent enough to pull them off.

I don't know why, it's not a lack of resources.

Maybe they just don't have enough real leaders?

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.

Older Comments

Well, not sure I agree with everything you say, but one thing that resonates with me is your point about health insurance. I know plenty of folks who won't leave a job they hate because they simply couldn't afford to insure their family if they did.

In fact, if we take this a step further, it could be argued that the lack of affordable, transferable, health insurance is hampering the economy because it acts as a significant deterrent to entrepreneurial activity - particularly in the 25-45 age group where family committments are often at their most onerous.

Chris P. Maine

The trick that most companies fail to pick up on is the fact that they probably have all the good leaders that they require at their disposal. They just that they don’t recognise it. They fail to nurture or enable people to shine through. The most frustrating thing of all is that it wouldn’t cost that much to implement. Measures based on trust, that bring out and celebrate the best in each individual, liberating them to realise their leadership skills. The dividends would be so phenomenal.

It’s all very well employing whiz kid new blood, but this is an expensive process, and it might well be what your business needs, but first make sure you are encouraging and enabling your current staff to fulfil their full potential.

Leadership is a unique talent that is often lacking at management levels, but is usually present at some unexpected levels in an organisation. Until this is recognised and accepted Leadership will never shine.

Paul Garrard

My first impression was that you were merely being flip about leadership. As I re-read your comments, I think you are on to something important about developing leaders. Your solution of working with and on those in the organization has merit. Yet it fails to consider two important things: it takes good ingredients to make a good cake(talent and commitment) and almost every institution fails to carefully select people; and top leadership competence is often lacking the capability to identify talent internally or externally with sufficient accuracy to put the right people into training/development activities. So, the paradox is that bad leaders will not develop good leaders. Therein lies the rub!

Roger Harris