Is Good Leadership Elusive And The Consequential Reality Being Ignored?

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Publication date:

June 01, 2021

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Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Despite decades of leadership development, good leadership for the most eludes us and bad leadership remains evident in virtually every corner of society. Just listen to an average newscast and at least half of the stories will show signs of questionable leadership at one level or another. This begs a question that has been nagging at me for some time: why do we devote so much attention to good leadership and virtually none to surviving bad leadership?

The record on leadership is not very good. There is plenty of research in psychology on why people can be swayed to follow bad leaders. History is full of examples of such behavior and the disastrous consequences it can lead to. Some of us seem to be slow in learning or seem to be ignorant of history. Just reflect on this fact for a minute: of all the independent nations that exist in the world today, more than one in four are dictatorships. From what I know of good leadership, being a dictator is not a role one should aspire to.

Would we recognize bad leadership if we ran into it? My belief is that most of us would. In fact, if all the focus on good leadership has achieved anything, it is that we can all easily and quickly identify leadership deficiencies in the behavior of our bosses. The consequence is that many of us toil away in the shadows of bosses who leave much to be desired. What should we do?

Perhaps, we should remind ourselves that nobody is perfect and that good leadership might be elusive. If that is the case, we should focus on where the rubber really meets the road and devise effective strategies to survive bad leadership and thrive despite of it.

Reality Should Hit Home

As a former business school dean, I witnessed the explosive growth in leadership development over the last few decades. Soft skills have been crowding out hard skills in many curricula, with leadership development featuring prominently left, right and center. Do not misunderstand me; I am all for soft skill development. There are just two obvious questions that come to my mind. First, are we focusing on the right soft skills? Second, and perhaps more important, are we achieving any results?

How effective is all this leadership development training? Is it another example of the gym problem: that those who go don’t need to and those who need to go don’t? Or is it that we get it but find it nearly impossible to rewire ourselves to become more effective leaders? Or is it just that leading people is so hard that, despite our best efforts, we will still come up short?

Whatever the answers to these questions, the consequential reality is that many of us have to work and achieve results with no effective leadership to guide us, support us, and/or cheer us on. Worse, some of us face bosses that put roadblocks in our way. Is it possible to still thrive in such a situation?

The Anna Karenina Principle of Leadership

When it comes to leadership, I subscribe to the Anna Karenina principle. That is, all good leaders are the same but all bad leaders are bad in their own way. This statement is a paraphrasing of the opening sentence to Leo Tolstoy’s great novel, Anna Karenina. What the sentence implies is that good leadership requires many things to come together. The odds of the stars aligning as they should makes good leadership quite elusive. My view is that good leadership is like the horizon: we know what it is, sometimes we come close to it, but we can never quite reach it.

The Anna Karinina principle also explains why it is virtually impossible to identify what makes a good leader. There are just too many variables and not enough observations to solve that problem. I believe that we would all be better served by studying bad leadership more, and what to do when one has to work in the shadows of such leadership. We should study the reality we work in and leave aspirational fiction for target practice.

Studying Reality

We are all likely to follow and feel inspired by a great leader but what do we need to do when the leadership elevator didn’t quite make it to the top? We can quit but that might be giving up on an opportunity to learn and, indeed, an opportunity to become a better leader ourselves. Quitting would also imply that one believes leadership to be better elsewhere. That the grass looks greener on the other side might just be another illusion.

Some situations might be quite nerve wrecking and lead to quite a challenge to keep it all together. Let’s face it, none of us were ever recruited to do that job. And none of us were ever trained to do that job. I know of no business school that focuses on developing such survival or coping skills. All the attention is on good leadership skills which only magnifies the discomfort and exasperation we feel when faced with the opposite.

In recent years, we have seen some attention being devoted to followership. That literature is, however, very much on the same plain with good leadership. It primarily focuses on how to follow a good leader and in the process secure his/her success. After all, leaders need followers and good leadership demands good followership.

What about bad leaders? Do they deserve followers? Should we fake followership to save the ship; ie, toe the line but decisively step to a different beat? Do certain situations call for some type of shadow leadership to secure positive momentum in spite of questionable behavior by the nominal leaders? Let me dig into my own past to reflect on what might be needed to escape the clutches of deficient leadership and still succeed in spite of it.

Building Bridges, Digging Moats

After helping to build and lead two independent business schools, I took on the challenge to turn around a business school that was part of a university. The school had gone through some turmoil but I could see plenty of untapped potential and that convinced me to take on the challenge.

I had experience building and leading independent business schools but I found myself now reporting into an incapsulating university bureaucracy. Hence, I got sandwiched in between the team I led in the business school and the university leadership: looking down, I saw nothing but blue ocean; looking up, I saw threatening thunderclouds. I knew how to sail the blue ocean, but I had no experience keeping an overarching and overreaching university bureaucracy at bay in the process. I set to work believing that if I sailed the blue ocean well, the rest would fall in place.

As I started implementing a program of change, I learned quickly that I had to keep my eyes on two balls – the business school and the university leadership – and that I had to assess and manage both independently. When it came to how to handle the university leadership, I had quite a bit of learning to do. First, how was it organized and how did it operate, on paper and in reality? Second, what were the dynamics that drove that leadership and could create waves on my blue ocean surface? Third, was the leadership an asset or a liability to what I wanted to do with the business school? Reflecting on this question, I concluded on the latter. I had assumed that they would trust me given my experience and record of achievement but that turned out to be quite threatening to them.

As I write in my book, Rough Diamonds (https://geni.us/RoughDiamonds, I set out to do two things: build bridges and dig moats. On one hand, I wanted to reach out to my bosses and see if I could bring them along on the path I wanted to take the business school on. As they did not see the opportunities as well as I did, I felt that it was my task to educate them. I also needed to keep a watchful eye on them as there was little room for surprises. Besides the university leadership, I also started building bridges to other stakeholders in and around the business school to prepare the ground for support that might be needed down the road.

Building bridges was not enough, however. I also needed to protect what I was doing with my team in the business school. I had to dig moats. There were just too many unknowns and I had to keep control over the process of change that would get the business school on a new growth trajectory. I had to keep the university leadership at arms length, both in person and in shadow. If I wanted to achieve my objectives with the business school, I could not let my university bosses become the center of the school’s collective psychology and the pivot of action.

Executing all this besides managing a school was quite a challenge. The tenets of good leadership provided little comfort. Worse, there was every indication that the whole situation was gnawing away at my own ability to lead.

A Real Need

Given the prevalence of bad leadership, what I experienced must not be that unusual. Many of us could benefit from some guidance on how to deal with leaders who are not up to the task. Let us study deficient and/or obstructive leadership and its consequences. As it is likely to come in many colors, we could start by devising a typology that then can be mapped into strategies on how to navigate around it, not fall prey to it, and succeed and thrive despite of it.

Let us develop soft skills but give priority to those that will help us where the rubber really meets the road.

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