Leadership fanatasies: decontextualised idealism

INN331 – Management Issues for Information Professionals

WEEK NINE: Chasing elusive leadership qualities.


It is unfortunate that academically acceptable treatments of qualitative considerations often need to be masked in a faux neutrality about contexts we all know to be material, if not vital, but that is the state of play.

In that setting, discussions of human attributes or qualities are particularly suspect when they ignore the precise circumstances in which these are observed, and to which an interpretation is linked, which may not be the same circumstances.

And so it is with management and leadership. These can only be observed within specific contexts, such as the artifice of the observation itself, the organisational settings, the unseen and unspoken influences that apply to organisational culture and history, and many other factors that are ignored for the sake of simplicity or just because they are unknown.

Of particular importance is a recognition that every human organisation has its purpose in economic or political objectives, and as a variable along a continuum between the two rather than as a fixed absolute or unchanging position. In the context of INN331, this means a mixture of profit motive and politics is a given as the framework within which management and leadership can operate at all. If that seems obvious, I mention it because it restricts some of the more romantic notions about leadership qualities and skills. It might, for example, explain why we don’t have many great leaders whose strongest skills are in literature, the arts, or some other creative pursuit.

Because of these ‘cognitive overheads’ (a term unapologetically stolen from Chang and Iyer, 2012, p. 251) a lot of the discussion about management and leadership traits has to be read in conjunction with a direct cross-matching to personal experience and knowledge of such ‘un-mentioneds’ and ‘unknowns’, which means that interpretation by readers varies significantly according to education, experience and insights.

This background to management and leadership discussion should be known to writers in the field, and should therefore be a component of assessing their writings, which makes what follows sound harsh, but nevertheless necessary. Cowardice and irrational academic conventions are not excuses for obscuring truth.

Assessing Goleman’s ‘What makes a leader?’ is confounded by contradiction: he has impressive credentials and the Harvard Review of Business (HBR) is respected, but his tone and content seems ‘soft’ and devoid of convincing proofs.

Talking about emotional intelligence to me is like using a red rag to calm down a Pamplona bull. Most of the narratives about emotional anything usually turn out to be bullshit-bingo – expositions laden with management and psychology buzzwords that end up having no meaning other than one contrived to achieve the ends of an agenda.

Goleman almost has me when he at least defines his ground and promises to address each of the following in turns: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill. But then he blunders into the unforgivable territory of asserting that qualitative evidence can be turned into the kind of metricated quanta so many researchers mistake for scientifically credible indicators.

In short, the numbers are beginning to tell us a persuasive story about the link between a company’s success and the emotional intelligence of its leaders. (p. 83.)

Nonsense! And what numbers? I see no reference to any numbers. He might as well be freely inventing what he asserts.

Likewise, I have a strong instinct to dismiss him when Goleman makes the almost stirringly idealistic assertion that:

The decisions of self-aware people mesh with their values; consequently, they often find work to be energizing. (p. 85.)

This from a man discussing the epicentre of moral vacuity and self-serving corruption – the American private sector.

However, he then makes a number of observations that ring true to me viscerally rather than on the basis of hard evidence:

  • Self-awareness as impetus for frank honesty and self-deprecating humour rather than defensive and ego-driven megalomania (p. 85).
  • Playing to personal strengths (p. 85).
  • Restraint from blaming rather than coaching or advising (p.86).
  • Seeking and considering multiple opinions before decision-making (p. 86).
  • Thoughtful consideration of apparently contradictory or ambiguous positions (p. 87).
  • The drive to do better than others, and to challenge the status quo to get there (p. 88).
  • Expecting high performance from others (p. 89).
  • Empathy expressed as recognition of other people’s perspectives, particularly to bad news (p. 90).

None of these indicators mean much without specific context, but their routine absence would suggest to me the absence of leadership.

Like many gushy, born-again types convinced in their own theology, Goleman destroys all the credibility he built in the article by ending with a homage to extroverted gregariousness. It is simply untrue that extroversion is the only method for building useful networks.

Moreover, his parting words are misleading:

It is fortunate, then, that emotional intelligence can be learned. The process is not easy. It takes time and, most of all, commitment. But the benefits that come from having a well-developed emotional intelligence, both for the individual and for the organization, make it worth the effort. (p. 91.)

I don’t think an idiot can be taught anything, and even quite sensible people can never learn more than to ‘act’ the part, but in what is nevertheless still a charade, and therefore prone to dramatic lapses in judgement.

Goleman, for all his flaws, was more entertaining and instructive than Watkins, whose repetitive warning to managers promoted to their ‘level of incompetence’ not to focus on the specifics of their former positions or expertise is just … boring. It is ‘management 101’ stuff, and doesn’t really qualify as discussing leadership so much as holding forth on how to move from technical or functional management into a more senior management position, requiring strategic rather than tactical thinking and action.

In the context of INN331, perhaps the lesson here is for IT and LIS types who think that mastery of technical or vocational specialty should entitle them to leadership positions. It does not. There’s nothing worse than a DBA who thinks he can run the universe better than someone who doesn’t use linux and Oracle, or a librarian who thinks she better understands ontology than philosophers.

Closing the HBR troika this time is an article by Groysberg and Slind that reminded me of a political strategy gaining some momentum in Australia since 2010: calling propaganda efforts ‘a conversation’ with the nation. That is, the politicians and their proxies do the talking while pretending to listen to feedback.

Groysberg and Slind may be sincere in proposing that messages and instructions from leaders carry more weight when delivered personally and informally. They do not, however, point to the simple reality that mostly these messages already have a fixed outcome in mind and do not emulate the egalitarian character of conversation at all. They merely simulate it.

That said, the ‘intimacy’ (p. 78) of personal contact and dialogue can create a better environment for disseminating propaganda and directives than a remote approach.

Likewise, promoting organisational dialogue can indeed identify prospects for thought leaders and brand ambassadors (p. 81). Both are valuable enhancements of an organisation’s human resources, and may also motivate individuals beyond conventional salary and career prospects.

I have observed this directly in a number of private sector organisations, and at various levels of the Australian political system.

How this translates to rigidly top-down, command-and-control organisations like Australian public services, is a bit of a mystery to me, though. I guess the best message there is: ‘Don’t be such an arsehole about being in charge.’

Reading the Bass article is like turning the clock back to the 1970s and trying to explain to regimented automatons what it is to lead human beings rather than cogs in some Taylorist dystopia.

Bass conceives of both management and leadership as formulaic sets of tasks and causal outcomes. I think he fails at that point, which is really the fundamental conception.

Still, he is right to mention reward as motivation (p. 21), which has fallen out of favour despite its continuing relevance, and to refer to the desolation of innovation by rigidly fixed rules. This is particularly relevant to the public sector environments envisioned in INN331.

The Methodist ministers and Ross Perot examples (pp. 22-23) are more an indictment of Bass’s thesis than convincing case studies: hypocrisy and corruption are proof of dishonesty, and the efficacy of insincere theatre, not of admirable management or leadership strategies.

Still, the personal touch he advocates (p. 25) is an echo ever after, even if there are some odd assumptions to follow:

  • People engaged intellectually at the recruitment stage are more likely to be motivated (p. 26). What recruitment strategies actually inspire anyone?
  • That people who perform well at one level can be expected to perform well at the next (p. 26). Promotion to level of incompetence is too common for this to be a universalisable principle.
  • Managers model themselves on their bosses (p. 26). Maybe sometimes, and by lip service, but two of the same makes one of them redundant.
  • Organisations need to support mavericks who want to break all the rules (pp. 26-27). Sure, but they mostly don’t.
  • Leaders can be trained to be charismatic (p. 27). Bullshit.
  • Personal traits and performance of leaders can be metricated and duplicated (pp. 28-29). Bullshit.

This is all stuff that should have been worked through organisational systems decades ago, though I guess its relevance for public sector organisations might still hold true in some regard, because the apparent management dynamics in such organisations have been static or moribund.

I wonder why Bass is so pervasive; he is cited for recommended reading in both INN331 and INN500.

No matter how antiquated Bass might seem, however, he has nothing on Davis and Macauley, whose paper simply escapes me.

While leadership is a topic where rhetoric and reality do not always align, this paper is an invitation to begin conversations about this kind of ambiguity. (p. 53.)

Is the contention here that public service management is uniformly awful, and those subjected to it should aspire to timidly start thinking about that? How forward-thinking!

If there is content in this paper, it is that a lot of buzzwords with emotional appeal have been used to say not very much at all. Perhaps there’s some secret code in the public sector used to critique its ‘un-leadership’ without drawing the ire of boss bureaucrats. Alas, I can’t decipher that code.

If there was a way to top Davis and Macauley, Hai and Mohamed managed it by obscuring even the English language at all under the mantle of scientific analysis of organisational culture and leadership styles, metricated to within an inch of my life. What a monumental waste of time.

If such nonsense about reducing human qualities to numbers and deterministic meanings derived from reliable charts were true, Astrology would be as good a guide to leadership qualities as scholarship, and organisations would already be run by pocket calculators rather than managers and leaders. That this nonsense persists is a definitive indictment of the ‘clockwork universe’ mentality allowed to persists like fungus in the darker recesses of the academy.

The Kest article falls almost into the same category, but he did at least acknowledge that he was dealing with perceptions, and reporting on those rather than formulating ways to fabricate or duplicate them.

Perhaps the single most important point is:

The central question as to leadership showed that leadership is not rewarded on an employee level and that the members are dominated by an autocratic style. This indicates that what is projected to the public in many cases as progressive, transformational leadership is not translated to the employees. (p. 69.)

Another timid suggestion from the public sector that its leadership is comprised of barbarian recidivists who stifle all creativity and innovation?

But when it comes to indictment of those barbarians, surely Wilson and Corrall deserve the prize for debunking the myths about public sector management.
Their article ought to be required reading in every LIS unit. The direct acknowledgement that the public service is a political environment, even if its leaders claim to be bi-partisan or neutral, is refreshing, even if it takes some effort, in reading the paper, to sweep away the cobwebs of a contrived neutrality about realities apparent to anyone who can see and listen.

An acknowledgement that public service leadership is political in organisational senses as well as party-political contexts is artlessly missing from many other discussions of library management and leadership. What a shame that library managers and leaders appear to spend all their time politicking to the disadvantage of their colleagues and staff rather than for the benefit of the public, the library system, and all who work in it.
So, at the end of this slab of uninspiring reading, what can I conclude about leadership? Not really anything of greater substance than the pap I reviewed here.

But in keeping with the ‘listicle’ style beloved by all who draw inspiration from the HBR, here are my conclusions about characteristics of leaders:

  • A high degree of self-awareness evidenced by self-control and wide consultation.
  • An ability to relate personally to a wide range of people (not all people, and not in all circumstances).
  • Superior communication skills in articulating and selling messages.
  • Personal integrity manifested in consistency, ethical behaviour, and professionalism.

Distilling this further for the in-class requirement to come up with a single ‘leadership trait’, I’d have to stretch the rules to include several:

The ability to inspire confidence in a vision and direction, based on established credibility, integrity, and competence.

A bit naff, I know, but the entire body of literature about leadership is full of meaningless buzzwords.

What I mean is the capacity to develop a credible, sound vision that withstands critical analysis and is sold with conviction by a skilled communicator whose credibility rests on an established track record of integrity and competence.

As for my own prescription for studying and appreciating leadership, I suspect that a depth of liberal education, allowing critical analysis that accesses the broadest possible range of human knowledge, is a critical factor. Leading on from that, the capacity and willingness to radically depart from group-think or conventional methods is important, not as a deterministic formula, but as an option. Human qualities round this off: integrity, sincerity, ethics, and any of the other ways of describing people as trustworthy, are absolutely vital. Concern for human consequences flows naturally from these qualities, but in a way that most management literature only alludes to as an adjunct to manipulating people. Leaders are people who are not shaped by their environments so much as ‘shapers’ of them. So, courage and persistence must certainly be added to the mix.

Where do we look for examples of this? Not (exclusively) in American businesses, but in history. That, however, is another story altogether.

In the meantime, however, it is worth remembering that the source and consumer of most management and leadership literature is the ubiquitous MBA programme, which is responsible for the disasters of Reaganomics, Thatcherism, the 2007 global financial metldown, the progressive destruction of the middle class in the west, and economically illiterate perspectives of contemporary Australian political parties.

In other words, the literature in this area ought to be treated with a healthy dose of cynicism and careful critical analysis.

And if it’s just me saying so that is a barrier to such caution, I recommend the ABC Radio National’s background briefing on MBAs. It’s a corker.


Bass, B.M. (1990). From transactional to transformational leadership: Learning to share the vision. Organizational Dynamics, 18(3), 19–31. doi: 10.1016/0090-2616(90)90061-S

Chang, H., & Iyer, H. (2012). Trends in Twitter hashtag applications: design features for value-added dimensions to future library catalogues. Library Trends 61(1), 248-258. doi: 10.1353/lib.2012.0024

Davis, H., & Macaulay, P. (2011). Taking library leadership personally. Australian Library Journal, 60(1), 41-53.

Goleman, D. (2004). What makes a leader. Harvard Business Review, 82(1), 82-91.

Groysberg, B., & Slind, M. (2012). Leadership is a conversation. Harvard Business Review, 90(6), 76-84.

Hai, N. N., & Mohamed, S. (2011). Leadership behaviors, organizational culture and knowledge management practices. The Journal of Management Development, 30(2), 206-221. doi: 10.1108/02621711111105786

Kest, R. T. (2006). Principles of leadership: Leadership management. Futurics, 30(1/2), 52-71.

Watkins, D. M. (2012). How managers become leaders. Harvard Business Review, 90(6), 64-72.

Wilson, K., & Corrall, S. (2008). Developing public library managers as leaders: Evaluation of a national leadership development programme. Library Management 29(6/7), 473-488. doi: 10.1108/01435120810894509


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