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The Inconvenient Truth About Leadership

May 15, 2019

The leadership industry is obsessed with adjectives: authentic, agile, transparent, humble, strategic, results-focused, purpose-driven… If we all got together, we could make a list a mile long. On the one hand, we could just write it off as marketing. Everybody wants to stake a claim on some new intellectual territory: providers so they can sell it – companies so they can have a unique leadership brand. And if that’s all it were, it wouldn’t be so bad. A little marketing can be useful, if it gets people to pay attention to the right things. But that’s not all it is.

The leadership industry’s obsession with describing traits comes from a fundamental misdiagnosis of the problem. The implications is that you’ll have the leaders you need, if you can just get them to be a little more “authentic”, or “agile”, or whatever. Unfortunately, that’s not your problem.

The real problem is that, most of the time, your “leaders” aren’t leading at all.  

I’ve worked with dozens of major corporations and my team has worked with thousands of individual leaders. Everywhere you go, the story is the same:

  • Senior executives side-step major organizational problems, in order to avoid risk and conflict. In fact, they display remarkable agility dancing around the issues.
  • Managers at all levels obsess over operational detail below their pay-grade. They aren’t pretending to be micro-managers; it’s incredibly authentic.
  • For all the talk about collaboration across functions, most of your leaders rarely talk to anyone outside of their small trusted network. They just don’t do it.
  • Despite the hype about coaching cultures, I can’t tell you all the HR folks that have admitted to me something like this: “If we could just get our leaders to actually have a performance conversation, and then not be an @$$#%!& when they do it, that would be great!”
  • No matter how much we talk about organizational transformation, we all want somebody else to do the changing. Meanwhile we negotiate our own targets and project manage new initiatives into the safest and most familiar forms we can.

This is the world we’re living in. Leading isn’t about possessing some set of abstract traits. It’s about doing the things that move the business forward. The truth is your organization is chock-full of people in positions of authority who are leaders in name only. They have the title, but rarely do the activity. They aren’t engaging their people and bringing out the best in them. They aren’t taking on the real issues facing your business and moving it forward. They’re just playing the game of organizational life and winning – for the moment.

The kicker is that they think they’re leading, because it’s what they’ve seen for their whole careers and what they’ve been rewarded for in the past. You can’t really blame them.

No new set of adjectives or perfectly word-smithed leadership model is going to fix that. For most of your people, it’s not about fine-tuning how they lead. It’s about getting them to realize they’re not doing it much in the first place, and then helping them to do it more often.

Solving that problem starts with admitting some inconvenient truths.