What Leadership Isn’t

In my mid 20s, I was seconded from my role as a teacher into the head office of the Education Department. During the five years I spent in head office, I was invited to be part of a team that provided leadership training to school leaders.

I remember that one of the first sessions I provided involved putting up a quote on the overhead projector (no PowerPoint in those days!) that referenced the topic of change – it made note of the fact that leaders had never seen so much change and that change was difficult but it was now a constant. I asked people to comment on that quote and there was general agreement with it.

I then revealed the date that text was written – around 30 years prior.

In many respects, current writings on leadership are the same. What we read about more often than not, is stuff we’ve all heard about for a long time. Is there nothing new? And why isn’t the message sinking in?

It’s worth reading the book titled ‘The Smartest Guys in the Room’ (McLean and Elkind, the Penguin Group, 2003). It’s a fascinating chronicle about the demise of the giant company Enron. Enron was named ‘America’s most innovative company’ six years running by Fortune Magazine. It was America’s seventh biggest company. Ken Lay founded the company and was its Chairman and CEO.

When Enron was at its peak, Lay was seen as a great man. He often spoke about corporate values and was genuinely liked. According to the authors, Lay “built a deep reservoir of goodwill among those who worked for him… He remembered names, listened earnestly and seemed to care about what you thought. He had a gift for calming tempers and defusing conflict” (p3).

And yet, this is the man who presided over one of the biggest corporate collapses in the world. How was it, that a man with apparent impeccable leadership qualities who seemed to conform to the necessary ‘leadership criteria’ could fail so badly?

Hidden aspects of leadership

Somehow, the broad principles of good leadership can be lost in the day to day functioning of a leader. It’s our experience that often the things that most need to be managed are rarely made explicit – and are therefore not managed well.

The existence of internal politics is one example. Often internal politicking is rampant, but no one acknowledges it – people simply participate in it!

A key role for leaders is to recognise the existence of destabilising practices, acknowledge these and to actively work on the causes, rather than the symptoms.

It’s a fair bet that asking people not to be involved in internal politicking will have little impact. But eliminating the causes of it could well make a difference.

What could possibly cause internal politicking? While every context is different, there is a fair chance that the following may be contributing factors:

  • Lack of assurance about one’s place in the future in the organisation
  • Lack of assurance about the organisation’s future directions
  • Senior management withholding information
  • Senior management modelling internal politicking