You could choke an entire continent of horses around theories of leadership. If you’re being totally honest, “thought leadership” is often about theories of leadership — and it’s usually bad enough to make you want to light your beloved household dog on fire. (“Thought leaders” get paid nice speaker and consultant fees, but aren’t quite saving the world yet.)
The “leadership industry” is huge. I’ve seen it estimated at about $44 billion by some. If you divide that out by 365, there’s about $120 million per day being spent on leadership around the world. This takes different forms, obviously — classes, airfare, speakers, consultants, webinars, books, etc. — but still, $120 million per day is a lot of money to spend. When you consider that most leadership programs aren’t really that effective, it’s even more money to spend. But wait. How do we know these programs are not effective?
Well, use some logic there. If the programs were effective, would we constantly need more theories of leadership and new leadership programs? No. The goal of most products and services is to solve problems, or at least we want to believe that. Global employee engagement numbers are in the toilet. Trust in the workplace globally is a farce. Out of every 10 managers we promote, 8.2 are bad hires. Our leadership situation is a wreck.
As a result, most theories of leadership are complete and utter BS. But maybe there’s a path through this muck.
Theories of leadership: The essential thing to understand
This is a hard section to write, but let me try. There are some great leaders in the world, and that’s very good. But … a lot of times, people who get organizational authority at a company (“leaders”) tend to care about money. I am not knocking them for this, per se. By them caring about money and growth, the rest of us have a path to get paid. So, that’s good.
The problem is that … well, there are many problems. There’s myopia at a lot of companies around quarterly reporting systems. People are seen as also-rans. “So what if they leave,” a manager will sneer, “so long as we have our products and market share.” This is all becoming more confusing with automation and AI creeping in more and more. People are needed less, and everyone is — to some extent — trying to protect their perch and relevance for as long as they can. That leads to much tension, anger, inauthentic stuff, and resentment. That’s where the engagement and trust numbers above drop.
What if leadership was less about protecting your perch, and more about real growth?
Even if you absolutely love your job, you’ve probably seen pockets of this here and there. Someone you like got forced out. There are women and men crying in respective bathrooms. A guy who once seemed a compassionate leader becomes a money-obsessed buffoon over the course of 3–5 years. This stuff is common.
If you want the most ironic aspect of all this, consider this. “Human Resources” is the department we assign some of these people issues into, right? Look at the first word. Human. In reality, at most organizations that department is automated beyond belief. That’s where we’ve arrived at.
Theories of leadership: Soft skills and semantics
The next tier of the issue is that men (predominantly) who rise up to run companies are usually a very specific type of human being. We deify the workaholic, we love us some high achievers, and we need to respect men who make money. When you add those three things to a host of other factors, well, you can somewhat explain Donald Trump as the President-elect. Anyway.
In reality, there are a lot of “soft skills” that matter tremendously to leadership. A good example would be “the ability to communicate.” Go into 1,000 workplaces and ask people the biggest issue. Over 900 will say “communication.” It’s a tire fire everywhere. Why? Because no one gives a shit. Why? Because communicating well doesn’t make you money directly — and for as long as it’s been bad, these guys are still making the money. So who cares?
A lot of our theories of leadership should be about soft skills, but they’re not. They’re usually buzzword-couched vomit buckets delivered via webinar or “thought leader” as a tray of shitty potato salad or cookies resides in the back of the room. “Lead with your mission,” the speaker intones, “and please make sure my check clears at the end of this event.” It’s all fucking meaningless.
Leadership happens at an individual level. It’s based on people, and their potential, and their experiences, and their drive, and their empathy. It’s not based on theories of leadership and off-task webinars. It happens because of personal growth, not forced accountability. We always miss that on the corporate side.
What about some good-great semantics on theories of leadership?
Here’s an interesting video courtesy of HBR. Human beings love us some quadrants, and here’s this one as far as theories of leadership go:
You can watch the video to get this more, but here’s the basic idea. We use the terms “good” and “great” incorrectly. Because sometimes “good” means “morally sound,” as opposed to “adequate at your job.” The word “great” can mean “very good at your job” or it can mean someone who totally hard-drives everyone around them. It’s not a continuum of “this guy is bad,” and “this guy is good,” and “this guy is great.” That’s how we often think about it. But it has to be more nuanced than that.
I try to think about work in different ways, and I also try to call out some managerial BS we’ve all experienced. If that kinda sorta interests you, I do a newsletter every Thursday. Feel free to join up.
This guy (Bailey) breaks it down as like “shows force” and “provides direction.” It’s a little bit messy to me, because “shows force” is terrifying. But “provides direction” makes sense. All leaders should do that. Very few actually do. It’s costing companies about $145K per day.
What would be better theories of leadership?
Let people come to it themselves, instead of being force-fed it. That’s actually a good argument for coaching and mentoring, honestly.
I think this is the easiest way I can break it down. The goal of a lot of people who become “leaders” (i.e. VPs) is to make more money. To do that, here’s normally what you need:
- A baseline good product or service
- Some mostly capable people surrounding you
- Alignment between “strategy” and “task execution”
- Less wasted time
- Some semblance of priority
- The ability to communicate/explain to people what’s happening, especially as it pivots
Any theories of leadership need to be rooted in those things. Unfortunately, many are rooted in:
- Slop buckets
- Guys looking for a paycheck
- A supposed “thought leader” who posts on Medium a bunch
- Some bullshit that HR hired without vetting at all
- A book some SVP read and told his team to read
There are probably 30+ ways to approach leadership correctly, but we don’t. We put our heads down and focus on task work and pleasing our superiors instead. Alas. It’s not nearly as complicated as we think it is. It’s mostly about not being a giant asshole to others who you manage and learning a few soft skills in addition to your revenue analysis skill set.
What else would you say on theories of leadership?
My name’s Ted Bauer. Here’s my main blog.