B S Raghavan

‘Leadership industry’ takes a hit

B.S. RAGHAVAN | Updated on October 09, 2012

It used to be one of the much-talked about ironies at one time that most companies held aloft by Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. in their spectacularly successful book In Search of Excellence as models of excellence were subsequently found mired in mismanagement and malpractices. Like excellence, leadership too has become a multi-billion dollar “industry”, if one goes by the conclusions forcefully expressed by Barbara Kellerman , in her book The End of Leadership.

I haven’t read the book, but only the wrapping-up chapter published in the Web site of Strategy+Business Web site (June 29), but that is enough indication that the “leadership industry” too. like “excellence industry”, has gone haywire.

She is absolutely clear in her mind that most corporate in-house leadership training is an even bigger waste of time and money than what goes on in business schools. She quotes a 2011 CNN/ORC International poll to the effect that only 15 per cent of Americans trust the federal government to do what is right most of the time.

Similarly, Harvard’s Centre for Public Leadership found that fully 77 per cent of Americans “agree” or “strongly agree” that the US has a leadership crisis. She further brings out that “a dismally low 7 per cent of employees trust their employers, their leaders and managers; similarly, subordinates do not generally consider their superiors to be either honest or competent.”

Indeed, as she puts it, the growth of the ‘leadership industry’ coincides directly with a drop in trust in those at the top. She cites the example of Goldman Sachs adjudged as among the ‘Best Companies for Leadership’ by Bloomberg Businessweek, “even after its greed and hubris had become obvious, and even after its public floggings as a symbol of everything wrong with banks, corporations, even capitalism itself”.

If only…

A yet more telling and inexplicable example mentioned by her is what she calls the cast of characters now held responsible for what the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, called “the worst financial crisis in global history, including the Great Depression.”

The entire catastrophe, in her view, was due to failure of leadership at all levels, and it could have been averted, as a financial columnist at the time lamented, “If only regulators had been willing to regulate; if only Wall Street had done proper due diligence on the mortgages it was securitising; if only subprime companies had acted more honourably; if only the credit ratings agencies had said ‘no’ when asked to slap triple-A ratings on subprime junk. If only, if only.” She then legitimately asks, “Where, in other words, was the leadership industry when we most needed it?” I would add a question of my own: Where were all the whiz kids of the academic world, the Nobel Laureates in economics, the experts and professionals in the financial domain?

How did they fail to make out what was assuming such a monstrous form right under their noses?


Her overall conclusion is profound: “As a whole the leadership industry is self-satisfied, self-perpetuating, and poorly policed; that leadership programs tend to proliferate without objective assessment; that leadership as an area of intellectual inquiry remains thin; and that little original thought has been given to what leader learning in the second decade of the twenty-first century should look like.”

In other words, despite universities and publishing houses spewing out any number of treatises, tomes and tracts on leadership and despite the entire spectrum of the corporate and business entities and government departments all over the world spending billions of dollars and hours on leadership training programmes, there are still no clear markers that would unerringly identify a good leader.

Barbara Kellerman says that “There is scant evidence, objective evidence, to confirm that this massive, expensive, thirty-plus-year effort has paid off.”

If it is so, the reason perhaps is that leadership, like excellence, is an amorphous, abstract concept, and cannot be defined in terms of concretely demonstrable components.

That is why it still continues to be a chancy affair and you know it only when you see it.

Even so, I would hesitate to run down the importance of leadership training as a waste of time and money. It has its place, and in my reckoning, has done good. Let us not throw the baby along with the bathwater.

Published on October 09, 2012

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