Leadership development: eschewing fads and getting back to basics

The world is suffering from a serious leadership crisis.

The signs are everywhere: seemingly intractable geopolitical tension; economic disarray resulting from mismanagement, corruption, and greed; the waste and degradation of human potential and natural resources; a catalogue of calamitous social dysfunction; the failure of vastly increased funding to deliver improved health and education services; and the pseudo-celebrity antics of political leaders.

In the workplace we encounter disillusionment, demoralisation, and cynicism. The treatment of people as dehumanised functionaries rather than human beings, the high incidence of dysfunctional relationships, and the almost total absence of loyalty on either side of the management–employee divide are all symptomatic of leadership failure.

Statistics on absenteeism and disengagement make clear the reasons for declining levels of productivity and profitability.

Ironically, this crisis of leadership comes at a time when we have never been more active trying to produce leaders. The deluge of books and training programs are plainly making very little difference. Something is radically wrong with the approaches being taken to develop leaders.

Leadership is built on relationships, and healthy human relationships depend on trust, which in turn rests on truth. It is impossible to maintain a free, democratic society on deceit, yet deceit has become institutionalized.

Consider some of the verbal commitments heard in the workplace, and the realities that casino contradict them:
• We say we believe in honesty, but question the meaning of truth
• We say we believe in open communication, but practice political correctness
• We say we believe in empowerment, but prefer to retain control
• We say we believe in creativity, but stifle ideas and questions
• We say we believe in teamwork, but promote selfish individualism
• We say we believe in work/life balance, but keep increasing workloads
• We say we believe in confidence, but actively encourage cynicism
• We say we believe in change, but never make the distinction with progress
• We say we believe in core values, but are dismissive of morality
• We say we believe in loyalty, but only look after ourselves in a crisis
• We say we believe in strategy, but have a short-term focus and pursue the quick fix

And we say we believe we can make people effective leaders by simply giving them the right skills, despite being confronted daily by irrefutable evidence to the contrary.

This all betrays either an impoverished understanding of, or a manipulative disregard for, human nature, and a basic lack of empathy with people that makes it impossible to inspire them and get the best out of them.

In short, it seems clear that we have a fundamentally flawed understanding of what leadership is, and consequently have been trying to develop leaders by using methods that simply do not work.

We live in a world mesmerized by “the latest thing”, but leadership development is about things that have been with us from the beginning of history – the need for wisdom and character.

This single insight inspired a program that has made a real difference in the lives of people who sincerely wanted to be better leaders. The book, Leaders and Misleaders, grew out of that program.

The above is a précis of the introduction to Leaders and Misleaders by Andre van Heerden. Next month, Andre will define leadership, and the critical distinction between leaders and misleaders.