Do Strong Leaders Destroy Leadership?

Last Updated Oct 6, 2008 12:50 PM EDT

Google "leadership" and you'll get around 163 million entries. Search Amazon for books on leadership and you'll get 39,000 results. A search for leadership articles takes you into the millions. Leadership isn't a concept, it's an industry.

The modern business press have glorified leaders and leadership. Leaders have become the modern equivalent of Roman Emperors, elevated to the status of gods -- and treated in a manner befitting latter-day gods.

Society has been led to believe that an organisation's success or failure rests almost entirely on the shoulders of one individual. When football teams perform badly, it's not the players who get fired, it's the coach or manager. When corporations stumble the focus of attention is the chief executive -- although able politickers will deflect the blame.

CEO turnover is quite rapid, but companies learn nothing from this -- they just appoint a new one. Then, with the same products, the same technology, the same finances, the same markets and the same people, the new CEO is expected to perform the required Herculean feat. But it is usually impossible.

Changing the performance of a large organisation takes the efforts of thousands, not a single person, even if they wear their underpants over their trousers.

Strong, powerful leaders are detrimental. Their decisions determine much of what an organisation does, killing off leadership in the rest of the business.

The more powerful the leader, the less people in the organisation are willing to put forward their ideas and suggestions. What's the point of expressing an opinion when it will be completely ignored? When intelligent and capable people are prevented from initiating and doing things that make a difference, given no say in how things operate, and are simply told what to do, they become disengaged.

Instead of taking initiative they become increasingly passive and wait for the dominant leader to provide the direction and make the decisions. The cry from executives, "Why can't anyone in this company make a decision? Why does everything end up on my desk?" has a simple answer: "Because you don't let them".

Leadership in virtually any group of any size is not something that only one person can, should, or does provide. Everyone has a role to play.

Dominating leadership overpowers people. It kills leadership and cultivates followership. As Jeff Pfeffer remarks, "For the talents and ideas of others to emerge, leaders need to step back and provide the space for this to occur."

Peter Drucker's dictum was that the person doing a job knows more about it that anyone. So if you want to know how to do things better who's the best person to ask?

Does your company have a 'tell them' or an 'ask them' approach to leadership?

(Photo Xurble CC2.0)

  • Robin Stuart-Kotze

    Robin Stuart-Kotze is a founder of the consultancy Behavioural Science Systems, whose clients include P&O, BP, Oracle, and Johnson & Johnson. He’s also made his way in management, largely in the financial services sector in the UK and Canada. A distinguished academic with a PhD in organisational psychology, Robin co-wrote “Who Are Your Best People?” about effective talent management.