The bogus lingo of big-shot leadership

These days the word ‘leadership’ reverberates around us, usually with an inflated meaning. Every second job advertisement claims to be offering a leadership position. Every second captain of industry, according to business magazines and gung-ho publicists, regularly shows strategic leadership of colossal stature. Grandiloquent cliché epithets like ‘visionary’ and ‘dynamic’ often cling to those who are hailed as leaders. Not all leadership talk is suspect, of course; the topic can and should be discussed with useful precision. (More about this later.) But the bogus lingo of big-shot leadership  deserves our sceptical scrutiny.

Hero copyA quasi-military model is popular in the male imagination. You see this in a pervasive lexicon of strategic manoeuvering and in the guru status accorded to figures like retired army generals as speakers on the celebrity circuit. Adulation of highly aggressive corporate warrior lords is part of the same notion: leaders are supposedly defined by their heroic feats on the business battleground – a world of conflict in which winning only occurs if there’s an enemy you can crush. Sporting achievement is often represented in the same melodramatic terms of belligerence and dominance.

The warrior is just one version of a more general stereotype that muddles a lot of thinking about leadership. This underlying stereotype expresses the misconception that a leader is a big shot endowed with extraordinary talents – a superhero. It’s a false image.

Perhaps the most mis-leading notion about leading is that it requires ‘charisma’ – a magnetic, inspirational quality possessed by exceptionally gifted individuals. This isn’t true: a reputable study by Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus found nothing in personality or style to distinguish successful leaders from anyone else. What’s more, this misconception is likely to bring trouble: trying to be charismatic is a recipe for inauthentic behaviour that would soon alienate any perceptive group that an aspirant may want to lead.

584086A serious defect of some courses in management and leadership is that they treat what are really aspects of character as if they were simply matters of technique.   One popular textbook on Leadership (by Andrew Dubrin) contains the appalling statement that ‘charismatic leaders…use the assertive impression management strategies of exemplification and promotion to secure and maintain desired identity images of their selves, vision and organisation.’ If only this were a conscious parody of debased language! – But no: the same self-advancement manual goes on to assure the reader earnestly that ‘a person can increase his or her charisma’ by following certain steps. These include ‘remembering people’s names’, ‘displaying an in-your-face attitude’, and ‘smiling frequently.’ I’ve got nothing against smiling, or remembering people’s names, but this ‘impression management’ ludicrously trivialises the attributes of leadership!

Dubrin’s textbook also declares that ‘charisma is a key component of transformational leadership.’  You may be familiar with this alluring phrase. It’s usually invoked as part of a loaded contrast: on the one hand a ‘transformational’ leader, who accomplishes major positive change, and on the other hand a ‘transactional’ leader, who operates on the basis of negotiated deals and expedient give-and-take arrangements. No doubt every leader would like to be seen as transforming an organisation or a society rather than merely conducting some clever transactions. So you get impressionable MBA students and ambitious young managers wanting to learn the formula for turning themselves rapidly into transformational leaders. When I read earnest advice like the following (it’s Dubrin again), I don’t know whether to laugh or cry: ‘Create visions for others.  Being able to create visions for others will be a major factor in your being perceived as charismatic.  A vision uplifts and attracts others. To form a vision, use the guidelines presented previously in this chapter…’

There are three things drastically wrong with this way of attempting to prepare people for leadership:

  • It implies that visions are always splendid and change is always desirable.
  • It’s confused about motivation: are we supposed to be creating and communicating a genuine vision so that members of our organisation will be persuaded to go forward together on a worthwhile journey, or are we producing something that purports to be a vision just because it makes us seem attractively charismatic individuals and fast-tracks our elevation to star status?
  • The assumption that transformational leadership – suffused by a charismatic and visionary radiance – is more valuable than transactional leadership is an absurd oversimplification. James Burns recognised this in his biography of the great American president F.D. Roosevelt, showing how the powerful influence of FDR’s leadership stemmed from his ability to combine the transactional (brokering deals) with the transformational (driving fundamental change).

Burns subtitled his biography ‘The Lion and the Fox.’  That little word ‘and’ sums up the point: successful leadership is not a matter of being charismatically transformational like a lion rather than cunningly transactional like a fox. The best leaders are both: they adapt to circumstances, knowing when to be bold and when to be shrewd. The Renaissance philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli made this nicely balanced observation in his book The Prince five hundred years ago. A leader, he said,

 should imitate the fox and the lion, because the lion cannot defend himself from snares and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. Therefore it is important to be a fox in order to understand the snares, and a lion in order to terrify the wolves. Those who choose only to be a lion do not really understand.

Does all this matter much? Why make a fuss about the bogus lingo of big-shot leadership? Well, that’s a question I’ll pursue soon in a sequel post…


7 thoughts on “The bogus lingo of big-shot leadership

  1. I’m glad it amused you, Amanda. “And if I laugh at any mortal thing / ‘Tis that I may not weep” (Byron).

  2. Ian, I couldn’t agree more and shall await your sequel post with interest. I have long suspected that leadership is not something that can be ‘taught’ but that it it is itself an aspect of the individual’s character, which is possessed in varying degrees like all others.

    There is also a particular paradox in that ‘techniques’ (‘remembering people’s names’ and ‘smiling’ for instance) advocated by manuals such Dubrin’s work far better when they aren’t practiced as techniques but arise spontaneously because of the regard in which people hold each other.

  3. I’m sure that cover photo on Dubrin’s book was meant to be humourous, in a rather dry sort of way. But given what you’ve said about what’s inside the book, it becomes humourous in a way that surely neither the author nor the publishers intended. Can you imagine what the oration might be like?
    “I propose that, this winter, we stand around in a huddle until it gets light again. Just like we’ve done every other winter. This is my bold vision for our future going forward. Any objections?”
    Maybe it’s why they’re called Emperor Penguins….

  4. Hilarious!
    Perhaps you should develop your imaginary leadership scene into a fable – The Emperor Penguin’s New Clothes…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *