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Leadership sucks

July 28, 2009

I never got the leadership thing. Leadership is the number one issue in most manager surveys. It is the most prominently featured section in managerial magazines. Leadership professors engage adoring HR fans in parsing out the differences between leadership and management. It is the star program in every executive education program. The parables of leadership – particularly those involving polar bears or movable cheese – take on messianic virtue. But none of this stuff ever does anything for me. I clearly suffer from leadership impairment, and it feels pretty lonely out there.

Until yesterday that is. At the end of the day, I ran across an article in the latest Harvard Business Review by Henry Mintzberg, the ever-young professor of strategy and organization at McGill University.

Suddenly, I have a Sherpa, someone who describes the world I live in. Mintzberg’s thesis: leadership sucks. O.K., I may be editorializing a little, but it’s the idea. To him, the US model of leadership, with its top-down, hero-at-the-helm iconography bears no resemblance to the way successful organizations actually work. His view: good managers foster the building of communities inside their organization and engage their employees in a collective process that starts with single innovative projects, and eventually shapes the enterprise as a whole. In the end, it is about communities doing meaningful things together, not fungible individuals who transact with their leader in the accomplishment of tasks. He suggests substituting “communityship” for “leadership.” (Henry, give me a call, I think I can help you a tad with your conceptual marketing.)

The use of the concept of community as it applies to organizational dynamics inside the organization is the new story here. We have long argued that co-creation with communities applies both outside the company – the more traditional marketing-oriented definition of community – and inside the organization – the way Mintzberg describes it. These are two sides of the same coin, an uncomfortable reality for marketing and HR people who think of themselves as having wildly different expertise (knowing “markets” vs. knowing “people,” but failing to realize that markets involve people too). Management is about communities, and there is no essential difference between building a customer community or an employee community.

There’s something annoying about Canadians like Mintzberg. On one end, they’re very much American, er, North American, that is. On the other, they have that “I’m looking at your menagerie from outside the cage” quality, with its vaguely socialistic, French-influenced hauteur. The only problem is they’re often right.
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