The funny business of leadership

The funny business of leadership
Mr. Lebowski – “…obstacles overcome, competitors bested”


Leadership is a funny business.

Surprising amounts of money is being spent on research at universities, on consultants and on programs withing companies to understand it, develop it and to figure out how to monetize its benefits.

It has become a fixture of the corporate dictionary and in our discussions when we have time for a little philosophy away from reporting, from Excel sheets, SAP and other productivity tools.

It has become the object of meditation for unemployed managers, and for consultants who call themselves authorities or gurus on the topic – without any justification whatsoever, purely based on a pathetic drive for self promotion.

Leadership has become a job title, or a tool for sprucing up job descriptions decorating the resumes or linkedin profiles of confused bureaucrats whose job is to report numbers to HQ.

I would propose to act rational and simply stop using the term altogether. It will be at least as difficult as giving up smoking, alcohol or crack cocaine. In the same time it will immediately improve the morale in most companies.

A couple of points to support my suggestion:

1. Leadership is not a business domain. And it is not a business term. People obviously showed leadership long before the first corporations appeared, to achieve objectives way above the domain of economics. In a corporate setting leadership has become an abstraction – this is precisely why it is so heavily debated, and this is why, similarly to strategy, there are LITERALLY several “schools of thoughts” on the subject. Leadership as a business term was invented by creative academics who were competing for research funds (as early as the early 1800’s -when the first corporations appeared- Carlyle and Galton had already put decades of research into studying “powerful men” to identify patterns, and the method of research hasn’t changed much since then).

2. Management IS a business term. Let’s just use this exclusively! Once the first corporations were registered, focused on manufacturing and trading, management “science” was born to bring efficiencies. Nothing has changed…much; except perhaps that there are much more managers today; in fact almost everybody is a manager which is quite ironic if we think about efficiencies, even if we consider complexity and all. This brings us to the next point:

3. Managers come in all shapes and forms. Some of them are “charismatic” some of them are psychopathic (also considered to be charismatic by the untrained eye); most of them are compliant and bureaucratic, some of them are “original”; some of them inspire others by their actions or speeches, some of them are just there to “supervise” stuff; some of them are vice presidents (popular title in banks some of which have 100’s of VPs of IT alone, obviously just pleasing egos as a “motivational tool”), some of them are directors, some of them are managers, some of them are supervisors, etc. All these titles maybe further differentiated into senior, junior, associate (like associate vice president, senior manager, etc.), the only limit is HR’s imagination. None of these would fit into any other domain of life outside of business – hopefully!

As long as managers are evaluated based on numbers, serving quantitative goals, we can’t talk about leadership.

3. Business does not aspire to leadership. It is hypocritical to propagate otherwise. Market share, attention (share), margins, revenue, etc.; sure. It is about economics; business solves problems as long as it is profitable; in fact it invents problems so it can solve them profitably. The concept of space tourism for example doesn’t contain leadership. Being the first to the moon was also not leadership. Inventing new financial products: not leadership. High performance electric car? Just business. New ways to test blood quickly? Just (pretty promising) business. And so on and so forth, no matter what area of transport, energy, communications, material science, building and construction, agriculture…and more: this brings us to the next point:

4. Almost everything is business. The purpose simply doesn’t transcend economics; even in areas that used to be above it: religious and military organizations, not to mention politics. All these domains now reach for management tools to pursue quantitative goals. Not only does politics operate with clear financial KPIs, these have become its purpose; religious organizations seem to be taking on the style elements of MLM schemes (which itself, after decades of trying, seem to have graduated to the realm of “real” business), focusing on recruiting new members and measuring strength based on numbers – perhaps it is by no coincidence that headhunters feel qualified to give horribile dictu “leadership advice” on selecting the new pope(!); military reports to bureaucrats – e.g. to the head of administration(!) who is responsible for GDP growth and keeping various indicators above and below a certain level, to mention just the least controversial areas.

It is quite logical that heroism, innate power and sacrifice, just some of the terms describing great men standing above the realm of economics, sound ridiculous when applied in a business setting; even though many people do sacrifice their lives to deliver KPIs (or to increase their buying power) which maybe perceived as heroic, while the loud over-compensation for weaknesses are often perceived as powerful – it’s a question of perspective; and we can see the perspective shifting!

Laszlo Kovari is a writer and the founder of Prakhsis, an organizational development company that has been a pioneer in the concept of organic organizations. As a "consigliere" he has worked with founders, managers, CEOs and board members at startups, mid-sized companies and some of the Fortune 500 across North America and Europe. Laszlo is based in Prague, Czech Republic, supporting clients across Europe.

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