Leadership is Over-Rated

The importance of leadership is vastly over-rated. Meindl and his coauthors found that leadership accounted for about 15% of the variation in task performance (1985).  Leadership isn’t a silver bullet solution for our problems.

Henry Mintzberg, one of the great management thinkers of this generation believes that our emphasis on leadership has led us to an emphasis on style over substance, to an emphasis of leader over follower:

By the excessive promotion of leadership, we demote everyone else. We create clusters of followers who have to be driven to perform, instead of leveraging the natural propensity of people to cooperate in communities. (p. 235)

Mintzberg has been critiquing leadership, management and business schools for several years now.  These critiques are much-needed, given some of the more spectacular failures of our firms and institutions in the past ten years.

But I wonder if we’re throwing the baby out with the bath water. As of last Friday, a google search of the keyword leadership returned 404 million results.  If google is any indicator, the general public is convinced we need leadership. Maybe because we need to believe that someone knows what to do in these crazy, complex, confusing times.

Perhaps we need to jettison the platonic ideal of the one perfect leader. Mintzberg, in his discussion of management, suggests that there are no effective managers.  He believes that the fit between manager, organization, people, task and situation is what makes the managerial process effective. “There is no such thing as a good husband or a good wife, only a good couple.” (p. 222)

Maybe we also need to ditch the idea of leaders and followers. We’re all members of our communities, groups, teams, firms and institutions. We all bring different experience, knowledge, talents, skills and motivations to the table.  If we consider how to effectively “play well together”, irrespective of our roles as leaders or followers maybe our organizations will be more effective.  To quote Mintzberg once more:

What could be more natural than to see our organizations not as mystical hierarchies of authority so much as communities of engagement, where every member is respected and so returns that respect? (p. 233 – 234)

Meindl, James R, Ehrlich, S. B., & Dukerich, J. M. (1985). The romance of leadership. Administrative Science Quarterly, 30(1), 78-78-102.

Mintzberg, Henry. (2009). Managing. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.


Categories: Leadership

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6 replies »

  1. I wouldn’t use the general public as a barometer for the need of leadership. They have been taught through their entire schooling experience and where involved through their religious experience to be “Sheep”. They need someone to tell them what to do. Some aspire to positions of leadership and again have been taught the current definition of what a good leader is and so follow it. Still a “Sheep”!
    Good leadership usually comes from the maverick. He’s aggressive, somewhat arrogant, eccentric and never learned to be a “Sheep”. The concept of “It can’t be done!” has no part in his vocabulary or his thinking. He has never failed at anything he has attempted because he only recognizes learning experiences. He’s not someone who thinks outside of the box because for him there is no box.
    When talking leadership we make the mistake of limiting leadership to industry and how much money is being made for the shareholder. Unfortunately, that limiting blind spot will only identify a list of crooks that have yet to be caught. The spectacular failures that you mention have shown that the so called leaders came out unscathed with their pay, their bonuses and their pensions. The failure was really in the general population allowing one tax dollar being used to support the corruption that took place before their very eyes. “Sheep!”
    Leadership qualities come from people like Gandhi, Churchill, Patton, Keller and Trudeau. They were the mavericks who were needed at the time and place they found themselves in. They did what couldn’t be done and I doubt you’ll find the technique, “Watch Me!”, in many of today’s school of leadership books. There are no theories to cover how they did what they did because it involved passion.

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