By Thornton May
May 10, 2017
Leadership in some form or fashion is taught in every college and university on the planet and has been practiced in every organization that ever existed. Despite that omnipresence, as well as society’s fascination with leadership and ample journalistic treatment of what appears to be a perennial “leadership crisis,” many executives lack a framework to evaluate and improve their own leadership. “Good” and “bad” leadership remains for the most part a subjective, bordering-on-mood-based assessment.
For the past six months, I have been working with a group of early-, mid- and late-stage leaders to better understand the changing state of leadership. To get the ball rolling, stretch the mind and precipitate animated conversation, I asked this group of IT leaders if the traits that made Alexander “great” were still relevant today. They concluded that leadership has evolved significantly in the 2,400 years since the boy king conquered most of the known western world, with contemporary leaders perceived as being more community-focused.
End of story? Far from it. The tension between the two extremes of leadership style has been studied for millennia. As Emma Dench, the McLean professor of ancient and modern history and of the classics at Harvard University who co-teaches a popular elective course at Harvard Business School called “All Roads Lead to Rome: Leadership Lessons from Antiquity,” explains, “The Romans grappled actively with a very central issue of leadership: How much is a leader for themselves — or how much are they for the people as a whole. … ‘Is it just you on an island, or are you part of a community?’ ”
In recent times, community has been ascendant — but not universal. The tension remains. In 1991, Joseph Rost, professor emeritus of leadership studies in the School of Education at the University of San Diego, researched the state of leadership, examining 450 books, chapters and journal articles. His research documented more than 200 different and not always consistent ways the leadership industry defines “leadership.” The leadership industry cannot seem to make up its mind whether leadership involves going ahead of others, facilitating others to run, showing others how they should run, motivating others to run, designing the trail the runners run on, timing the run or giving prizes to the fastest runners.
Despite (or perhaps as a direct result of) this lack of clarity, “leadership” is a big industry. Annually, American companies spend more than $160 billion on leadership training and education and nearly $72 billion recruiting leaders. Global expenditures are three times bigger. The general consensus is that a) we need more leaders, and b) the leaders we have need a skills upgrade.