If leadership is the answer – what’s the question?
Rather than worry whether we might let go of the notion of management I wonder whether we’d be better off letting the idea of leadership quietly – or preferably noisily – drop. For several decades now the organisational change trade, and I include myself as one of the guilty, have punted the idea of leadership as a set of personal qualities that are in some way distinct from, and superior to, management. Organisations have commissioned and paid handsomely for development programmes built around the idea that leadership is a jolly good thing and more of it will be even better. So you’d have thought, several decades on, we’d be seeing something for our time and effort, particularly in organisations that have invested spectacularly in the idea – like the NHS for instance. But instead of delivering quality patient care, the senior management of Mid Staffordshire NHS trust chose to transform Stafford hospital into a production line of death and suffering. So when NHS Medical Director Bruce Keogh summarised the scandal as “…a complete failure of leadership” I think he was right in more ways than one. Either that or all the members of the management team slipped through the leadership training net. Somehow I doubt it. To worship leadership is to bow at an empty throne.
You could argue that leadership theory is fine but we’re not implementing it properly. And you’d have a great argument as there is no accepted body of leadership theory – it remains a catch all that appears to mean something to everyone but fades into a vacuous blend of wishful thinking and pseudoscience the more you try to pin it down. Witness the witless LinkedIn discussions on the distinction between management and leadership and cue the ultimate crowd pleasing insight: “Leaders lead and managers manage” – you couldn’t make it up!
Or you could argue that the Stafford Hospital scandal was less to do with leadership and more the natural consequence of worshipping at another empty throne: chasing targets. In this this case we simply point our rifles at other fish in the barrel: Enron, SERCO, Kodak, Hillsborough, Jimmy Savile, The BBC, English football, English tennis, McLaren racing to name but a few.
The way forward? I think it’s time to conclude that the 100+ year experiment in trying to work with leadership as a personal power devoid of any influence from emergent meaning and action via conversation, social context, industry dynamics and the prevailing economic climate has failed. We need to look anew at what goes on when people work together – and as Ralph Stacey says, not from the luxurious perch of standing as outside observers – like spectators in the stands at a football match, but from getting our kit on, joining in and taking part in the rough and tumble of organisational life. Delivering a product or service while creating a future is a practical craft after all.