The End of Leadership

A précis by Pete Laburn

I recently read an outstanding book on the ‘state of leadership’ and the ‘leadership industry’ written by Barbara Kellerman of Harvards’ Kennedy School of Government entitled “The End of Leadership”.

Kellerman pulls no punches in her critique of both what is being cited as leadership and what is being taught about leadership. Never before has so much money been spent on leadership development worldwide ( her fig is >U$ 50 b) whilst that state of leadership in government or business world has never been under such scrutiny, perceived as being extremely poor, leaving much to be desired.

Her arguments are compelling in that she correctly – in my view – positions leadership as part of an triune including followership and context.  Followers emancipation and expectations coupled the context  in which we live have changed dramatically over past 50 years,  whilst what is propounded or advocated as effective leadership has hardly changed at all.  “Leadership”  is truly out of touch with reality.

In building her thesis Kellerman’s juxtaposes these 3 elements, in an historical review of leadership, from Confucius  (400 BCE), right up to our current context, patterns of follower behaviour and leading leadership thinkers – read Kotter and Heifitz (many of whom are her colleagues at Harvard) , or political, business  and social leaders – read Mandela / Obama / Immelt / or Mohammad Bouazizi. It makes for fascinating reading.

I found myself excitedly agreeing with much of what she wrote, yet simultaneously seriously challenged, and re-examining much of what I have been trying to share with delegates on leadership programs I have the joy of facilitating. What I agree with is that the current leadership paradigm is seriously flawed, and driven predominantly by way political parties crave power or the business world desires financial results.  Just consider how the majority of political parties operate or organisations are structured. They are still largely in the industrial age command and control mentality.  Leaders are still grown to assume that relying on power, positional authority or status is sufficient to lay claim to leadership credentials.  Surely ‘leadership’ has more to do with who we are, a state of being where we transform situations or influence people through how we live our lives not what we tell others to do.

We revere Gandhi and Mandela, but who seriously advocates or follows their proven leadership exemplars in government or business today – that leadership is a state of being, not one of doing – that it is rooted deeply in how we choose to live our lives.  Sadly the ‘leadership industry’ by and large teach a state of doing!  It is what is ‘wanted’ not what is ‘needed’. And it is wrong  – but its fuels the turnover of business schools and leadership academies / training companies.

Having been on a journey for some time that believed leadership could not be taught, but could certainly be learned, and that learning best takes place through real life experiences, I am very supportive of Kellerman’s critique. I am also very comfortable with the time she advocates that is needed to focus on the changing context.

However swinging the whole proposition to focus on followership as a precursor to understanding leadership and how to lead change, was an “ah ha” moment.  Followers have never before been so emancipated, expectant and protected by the rule of law than before. It is followers who will lead change in the future not leaders.  The context is too diverse, fluid, fickle and transparent for leaders – they simply don’t have a chance. They are damned if they do lead and damned if they don’t. Whatever they do will be paradoxically totally wrong and very right.  And ultimately they default to the system that drives them – or gets them in the end.

Wow – heady stuff. But what a wake -up call for the leadership industry. Challenging times ahead indeed, but a very different paradigm in which to consider how to contribute to growing people, transforming lives and make a difference in our organizations or the world in the years to come.

But the overriding thought I am left with is that it all starts with who we are, who we are being and that if we can’t ‘lead’ ourselves, or the ‘followers’ in our families, what chance do we have of effectively leading organizations. Yes we might run businesses well, deliver profits, employ lots of people, demand performance from the people we employ, but does that make us a leader.  Yes and no – there are some 1500 definitions of leadership, I guess one will fit, but the majority may not.

Pete Laburn

Ref:  Barbara Kellerman:  ‘The End of Leadership’; Harpur Collins, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-06-206916-0