Warren Bennis: Leadership Paradox

By Warren Bennis  |  Posted 10-01-2004

Warren Bennis: Leadership Paradox

In an amusing yet-to-be-published paper on action-oriented leadership programs, Harvard Business School staffer Sarah Kauss told how she did everything from grooming "a rather large blindfolded horse" to visiting a psychic who counseled her to wear a crystal around her neck, all in the interest of honing her leadership skills.

She also participated in more mainstream programs. Kauss found the most effective exercise was working with the Ariel Group Inc., a firm near Boston made up of professional performers that uses theatrical techniques to teach leadership skills.

This is not surprising, given that leadership is, among other things, a performing art.

Although the debate still rages on whether leadership is learned or innate, there is no doubt that the subject is being taught. When BusinessWeek published its annual survey of executive education in its Oct. 20, 2003 issue, 134 companies from 20 nations reported enrolling more than 21,000 employees in leadership programs, at a cost of $210 million. That's a significant investment in an activity that may or may not produce authentic leaders, or even better managers.

For all the money spent on them, we still don't know if leadership programs work, nor do we know which ones are successful.

Leadership development is still in its infancy. We are only beginning to look in a truly scientific way at how leaders develop—we have virtually no longitudinal studies on leadership comparable to long-term healthcare studies.

Still, there is no question about the importance of educating leaders. For the most part, leadership education programs receive positive reviews from the people who participate in them, and companies seem to feel the investment is worthwhile.

According to CIO Insight's own survey on leadership in October 2003, 61 percent of IT executives believed leadership programs were effective. As a result, organizations increasingly turn to leadership education programs.

Companies are asking providers of leadership courses, including such leaders in the field as the Harvard Business School and Duke Corporate Education, to provide them with customized programs.

Customization makes good sense because it allows organizations to address their most pressing issues. But I would urge a prior step before approaching any provider, however reputable: Take a long, hard look at how your organization defines and identifies leaders and those with leadership potential.

Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe, a professor of leadership studies at the University of Leeds in England, has done fascinating work on how organizations tend to limit their pool of leaders because of their own tunnel vision.

She is an astute critic of the charismatic school of leadership, which she sees as a result of studying what she calls "distant leaders," public figures and others, mostly white males, who do their leading far from the led.

Instead, she thinks more attention must be paid to "nearby leadership"—that done by those who actually interact with the led and have a profound impact on the quality of both followers' lives and organizational achievement. She offers practical, counterintuitive advice on how to identify good nearby leaders.

Don't ask their bosses, she counsels. Ask the people they supervise. In terms of leadership education, why not start by asking the managed who they think should be receiving leadership training, instead of relying on the judgment of top executives?

Organizations do themselves a terrible disservice when they fail to reassess their human resources periodically and when they do so only by relying on the judgments of the individuals with a vested interest in the status quo they created.

In addition to taking a fresh approach to identifying potential leaders, organizations need to decide the behavior they want to develop and reward in their leaders. In other words, executives must develop a clear understanding of what leadership means within the organization. This requires a profound analysis throughout the organization, especially at the top, as to what the true goals are.

Next Page: A close look at Medtronic.

Ziffpage Medtronic

Medtronic Inc., the Minneapolis-based medical technology company, is a good example of an organization that underwent the corporate equivalent of soul searching, as former CEO Bill George lays out in his book Authentic Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2003).

It is during this process that ethical questions must be grappled with, such as what the organization owes the public and its employees beyond the narrow obligation to increase shareholder value.

This is where an organization must decide whether it truly values creativity and is willing to establish the conditions under which it will thrive. Once these basic, difficult questions have been answered, it is ready to choose a fitting approach to leadership education.

Leadership development programs with a large action component seem to be more successful than purely academic ones, at least in the minds of the people who attend them.

Interestingly, one of the things Sarah Kauss found was that almost any kind of action-oriented program has the potential to make participants feel more confident about their leadership abilities.

Kauss speculates that one reason so many different approaches, including—surprise!—grooming horses (but not crystals), seem to work is that employees tapped for such programs benefit from the glow of having been singled out in the first place. She argues that there is probably an element of self-fulfilling prophecy in leadership education.

Being away from the workplace seems to make would-be leaders feel safer to expose their weaknesses and to take chances. In a fresh setting, participants can practice social skills, including communicating effectively, without the anxiety that often arises when they interact in the minefield that is the typical workplace. The off-site program is a blessedly office-politics-free zone.

But organizations routinely undermine the leadership education they pay for so dearly.

Typically, the individual comes back a changed person—bursting with new ideas, committed to the organization that paid for the life-changing experience, and eager to share fresh insights and exercise newly strengthened abilities. The cruel and unusual punishment that too often awaits the genuinely improved leader is that organizations have no desire to incorporate anything the individual has learned into organizational life.

This was one of the frequent barriers to organizational change that Alimo-Metcalfe discovered in a recent study. Another was that those who have been genuinely transformed by leadership education often find previously overlooked flaws and limitations in their superiors.

Until we know more about how leadership truly develops, leadership education programs may be mostly acts of faith, evidence of our belief that authentic leadership is possible. But there is a way an organization can reap the apparent benefits of leadership education without paying a huge price.

According to Kauss and others, people learn the most in off-site programs when the problems they deal with are real and important. Every organization faces such problems every day—how to deal with unexpected competition, how to prepare for leadership succession, how to cope with a scandal.

An organization that is willing to be self-critical and reflective can turn each of these problems into a compelling case study and a chance to train its own leadership. These are learning opportunities that shouldn't be missed.

Put unexpected groups of employees on task forces to deal with problems as they arise. Encourage—and reward—creative, candid analysis of what has led to the problem as well as possible solutions. Provide the teams with the time, tools and information they need to make the best possible recommendations.

Take their recommendations seriously. And don't be surprised when your own in-house education program turns out a whole new crop of eager, able would-be leaders.

Warren Bennis is a Distinguished Professor of Business Administration at the University of Southern California and Chairman of Harvard University's Center for Public Leadership.