Is the word 'leadership' overused to the point of meaninglessness?


September 1, 2017

Duck family

Years ago, Mrs. Bartlett, my third grade teacher, put a moratorium on the word nice in her classroom.

“It’s a feel-good, hollow word that’s easy to swallow and hard to contest — and probably something we wouldn’t want to contest anyway,” she said.

Mrs. Bartlett and George Orwell would agree.

In his essay Politics and the English Language, Orwell wrote that meaningless words “do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader.”

Mrs. Bartlett’s lesson that day was the importance of clear and precise language to say what we mean and to take responsibility for the words we use.

Thirty-five years later, I would like to apply the same moratorium on the word leadership — at least until we are willing to say what we mean by leadership, and take responsibility for doing so.

At a point in history in which U.S. President Donald Trump’s leadership abilities are being questioned on an almost daily basis, maybe it’s just as Orwell once said: there can be benefits to meaningless language, in politics but particularly in public and private sector circles.

“Joan is a true leader.”

“John led the change initiative.”

“We’re leaders in public accounting.”

“The senior leadership team has decided…”

Means nothing

Unfortunately, the word leadership has become a pliable form of praise that can stand for everything and nothing all at the same time. And perhaps this haziness, as Orwell suggests, is powerful.

For some reason, leadership in large organisations has reduced managing to something more formulaic and generally less worthy, although it certainly sounds better. Who would want to be called a manager when you can be called a leader?

“Joan is a true manager,” after all, lacks the same sparkle.

According to researchers Mats Alvesson and Stefan Sveningsson, attaching leadership caché to everyday behaviours like acknowledging others, listening well and generally just chatting “extraordinarizes the mundane.” When active listening happens in the pub, for example, we call it friendship; when done by our executives or even commanders-in-chief, we call it leadership.

Automatically granting leadership status to job titles may highlight a manager’s authority over others and his or her profile within an organisation, but it also reflects how unquestioning we are about what leadership is.

Why is it so difficult to define leadership — and perhaps also desirable for organisations to disguise what they mean by it?

How to define ‘real’ leadership?

As a leadership scholar I contend, first, that we confuse interpersonal influence — at the core of any theory of leadership —with what we believe its outcomes are.

Defining leadership in terms of the innovation it produces, the profitability it claims to yield or how it ignites progress muddies the waters between cause and effect.

And when we believe we’ve determined the effect, who cares about the cause? But with this type of thinking, what a leader is or does is almost beside the point.

In fact, it’s well-documented that we overestimate how much influence a particular person’s behaviours have on successful and unsuccessful outcomes.

This is known as the romance of leadership: for example, our assertion that a CEO leads her company to record earnings disregards the social influence and decisions of thousands of other people, along with a host of salient industry or market factors and just plain old good timing.

Romanticizing the effects of leadership gives us a way of, as Jeffrey Pfeffer writes in his book Leadership BS, assigning an apparently clear cause to a clear effect.

Failure isn’t so compelling

In addition, we like the dependent variable: we feast on stories of apparent leadership success and starve ourselves of stories about failures associated with the same type of leadership. A detailed recounting of how someone failed to overcome his or her difficult upbringing or experienced serial insolvencies isn’t exactly the stuff of best-selling leadership books.

Second, many studies show a robust correlation between interpersonal influence characterized as “good leadership” and positive outcomes for followers.

But our research methods may not allow us to paint a complete picture.

Just like everyone else, we leadership researchers have not explored causality with the same fervour as we have correlations.

We study executives in organisations as our “leaders;” we under-specify our scientific models by assuming these “leaders” are the major source of influence, and rarely include any substitutes for leadership or other possible forces as comparisons to test our hunches fairly.

And the way we teach leadership may be no better.

We often build leadership courses around vague (“leadership culture”) and outcome-driven (“high-performance leadership”) language, and we rarely measure prior levels of what we mean by leadership before we begin the course to know if there has been any behavioural change.

We largely hope for the best, capitalize on successful cases in marketing our leadership development programs and attribute those same cases of success to leaders exhibiting leadership — and conveniently forget about the non-success stories.

Amid this alchemy, U.S. management scholar Bruce Avolio and colleagues have actually shown there’s a decent return on investment to be had from well-designed and well-measured leadership skills training.

Confusing leaders with leadership

And yet it’s often in our best interests not to embrace such measurement.

Keeping the notion of leadership ambiguous but positively loaded means that we can use it however we like. We can simultaneously attribute positive outcomes to Joan’s leadership without being sure she actually influenced anything, and also attribute a lack of success to a failure in Joan’s leadership when it’s convenient.

Third, we focus on “the leader” — and often forget that social influence, by definition, involves at the very least two people.

Much leadership development focuses on personal insight (e.g., “what is my leadership style?”), rather than sorting through the many situations or conditions under which particular leadership behaviours might thrive. We’re fixed on leadership as a person rather than leadership as a process.

In fact, leadership researchers Robert Lord and Karen Maher defined leadership as the process of being perceived by others as a leader — something Trump himself seems to be grappling with.

Their definition highlights the futility of claiming to be a leader in the absence of others granting you that status, and the importance of understanding how we influence one another.

It’s also sufficiently vague enough about what that process actually entails, and how to achieve it, that the label of leader and the meaning of leadership remains, surely much to Mrs. Bartlett’s chagrin, conveniently nice and murky.

Nick Turner, Professor of Organizational Behaviour and Distinguished Chair in Leadership, University of Calgary. This article was originally published by The Conversation.

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