Leadership has traditional sources of learning, reflection, role modelling and a ‘body of knowledge’. There are four that dominate. This is my humble classification: The military, Corporations, Civic and Religious models, and Sports.
Where do organizations borrow from for leadership models? The military source is mostly about language (as opposed to individuals). The language of war is well embedded in organizational and business thinking: killing the competition, price wars, winning and losing markets etc. Occasionally there is reference to true military strategy and leadership, but not too frequently. Civic and religious leadership is also referred to, but here instead, only with the accent on individuals. ‘I have a dream’ and Luther King must be the most admired example. Business organizations love sports analogies which, in my opinion, are over-rated and oversized.
There is a point here, however. There are multiple sources from which to learn, mirror, copy, study, draw conclusions about Leadership. Multiple models and examples. It was in this context that some time ago, I was taken aback when invited to participate in a round table on the topic at a prestigious global business school. The Head of Research presented their five year research data on the future of leadership. It consisted of in depth interviews with most of the chairmen and CEOs of top FTSE 500 companies and from this he claimed that they now knew what the future of leadership looked like. That was it!
I put it to them that they had completely missed the point and the views of the chairman of Coca Cola, for example, (with all due respect to the Chairman of Coca Cola) were hardly relevant to day to day leadership in organizations. There is a myriad – I pointed out – of small or not so small enterprises that are full of people ‘leading’ from day to day, navigating through life, with different degrees of resilience, and most of them without a golden parachute should they screw up. ‘Where was that data?’ I inquired.
I didn’t like the way he looked at me and I realised I was turning into a Martian for them. I am sure that ‘the research team’ enjoyed a pleasant travel budget and found the research rewarding, but to call this the latest on the leadership of the future was slightly insulting to say the least.
Every day we miss the reality that is there in front of our eyes, in favour of the big names and big label position papers and reports. For leadership, it’s easy: look around. Don’t look up at The Big Names. Or don’t look at them only. Try schools, neighbourhoods, community leaders, small companies, medium and big, churches, public servants, good CEOs even if not those on the front page of the newspapers. We are rich in examples of good leadership. As rich as we are poor in so called ‘research’.
Sorry, it’s not about what the CEOs of the FTSE 500 think. Leadership, good or bad, is all around us, because it’s a praxis. If we are serious about research in leadership, we need to come down to earth and do a whole lot better than interviewing the usual suspects.
Update: I keep waiting for an invitation to another of their roundtables – but they haven’t called me.