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.

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