Why Leadership Is Like Country Music

The leadership industry is doing to leadership what “Nashville Country” has done to Country & Western music.  How do you avoid it?

Every now and then, a thought strikes me that is really over the top but perhaps relevant to some of the, ah, freer thinkers out there.  Perhaps this is one of them.

The background

A few days ago, I ran across a post on LinkedIn that has received a lot of play (to the tune of 35,000 views as of this writing–quite a lot in today’s crowded LinkedIn Pulse area). It’s by the Chairman of Jet Blue Airways and fellow Stanford-ite Joel Peterson. The title?  Beware the Pseudo-Leader

Your link is here. I encourage you to follow it.

The gist of the article is that real leaders don’t become real leaders by being phony opportunists or jerks (my words, not necessarily Mr. Peterson’s). He puts his thoughts out there directly.

Great leaders are rarer than those occupying positions of leadership. The real leaders rarely got there by being jerks. Real leaders don’t bully those over whom they have stewardship.

Relatively straightforward stuff…except that it isn’t. We are in an age of leadership that is overwhelmed by an industry peddling leadership potions, tools, and approaches, all devoid of the foundational values that sometimes must be formed through experiences and trials.  We can read books that profile leaders and distill them into any number of frameworks.  We can attend seminars that show “how” to lead. But, we rarely can find the framework, tool, or tidy case study that tells us how to apply our values during defining moments.

To wit, Mr. Peterson says:

Some [today] have dismissed altogether the role of leaders in outcomes, arguing that leadership is little more than a vague attribution of causation to an individual – and therefore doesn’t matter. But other commentators have lamented that today’s “leadership industry” has altogether failed to produce real leaders. These commentators are coaching wannabe leaders to hoard power, claim credit, and ignore fidelity to values in pursuit of benighted self-interests.

The thought…

Did you get the core issue from the quote above?  Some people today are essentially saying that “leadership” is only vaguely related to outcomes. You and I know them.  Others are saying that leadership is merely about ploys, plays, and practices focused on gaining position and power.  You and I know them, too!

Witness executives attempting to install “leadership” models in their organizations, but excluding any reference to values, and you have a great example of this.

Why?  Because such models pedaled by the “leadership industry” have no heart.  They are, frankly dangerous to organizations of any kind, because they reduce leadership to a check the box thing and allow outcomes to subvert sustainable enterprise thinking. It’s up to you and me to watch out for it.

Leadership in this model is a lot like modern day country music–so called “Nashville Country”–where one only need reference a truck, beer, tight jeans, a dirt road, sitting on a tailgate drinking moonshine, and then claim “country.”

The leadership equivalent is the executive leadership model (and we see them in many companies) that starts with a toolkit on functional talents, peppers in a few platitudes about purpose, and closes down with a checklist of leadership “behaviors.”  These are the corporate equivalent of soulless country pop.

They may form a catchy tune for a while, but nobody will remember them 10 years from now.

As with all things, “leadership” can be destroyed by distillation into unrecognizable substances. A hard fought perspective from a legendary leader (think Mohandas Gandhi or Winston Churchill) gets distilled into a quote on a t-shirt.  A challenging business leadership issue like growing Southwest Airlines or Apple computer gets distilled into a framework of undeniable elegance but questionable usefulness.  Such things are meaningless without the values underpinning them.

So what?

Okay, so then what’s the answer?  How do we take leaders that think leadership is Florida Georgia Line or Luke Bryan and help them think it’s more like Johnny Cash or Hank Williams (senior, folks…senior) or George Jones?

As with most things, I like to start with admitting it.

If you think you might suffer from the country pop leadership deficiency (and today, you probably do), perhaps you should stop and write down your own leadership philosophy.  There are many models out there.  A couple that come to mind are Ed Ruggero’s The Leader’s Compass work here and Mike Figliuolo’s One Piece of Paper here.   Both Ed and Mike are great resources on avoiding the country pop disease. 

If, in doing so, you come up with a list that is only results, position, influence, power, procedures, processes, behaviors and praise, then you likely have a problem.

If your list excludes values–and by values I mean some sense of what is right or wrong to you outside of results and process–then you are far more Florida Georgia Line than you may think.

May we all avoid being pseudo-leaders (and listening to pseudo-country music).

Please share your thoughts in the comments area below!



Good Governance Depends on Whom You Ask…

Want good governance?  Ask around.

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince the world he didn’t exist.”

Roger “Verbal” Kint – The Usual Suspects

Do you sit in a position of power?  Do you, also, sit in a position of isolation?

Oddly, the two things can coalesce into one if you fail to remain vigilant.  One of the hallmarks of bad governance everywhere–from Teapot Dome to Barings Bank to Enron to, I’m sure, Volkswagen–is the existence of good people in powerful positions who have allowed themselves to become isolated from the facts on the ground.

Consider the case of Volkswagen…

VW has now lost upwards of 40% of its market capitalization since the emergence of the news that engineers and managers in the company conspired to cheat on international emissions standards in the company’s small diesel engines.  I won’t belabor the point, but I can assure you that there are powerful people in high places in the company…its board and senior management (possibly up to and including its now-resigned CEO) who would not have consented to such egregious white collar crime had they known the existence of it.

I won’t speak for all the executives or board members at VW, because I simply don’t know them; but I will speak for the consistently present minority (or even majority) in such situations who were elevated to high places and subsequently isolated from the reality of ethical and legal behavior on the ground.  They allowed themselves to be convinced that things were being done right.

But what’s the deal? 

It happens in most every situation of moral, ethical, or legal lapse within corporations: Good people at the board or senior management level–usually due to great performance of the organization they are called to lead or govern–stop asking questions.  They take the word of people whom they “have no reason not to trust.”

They, essentially, fall asleep at the switch.  And, to give some examples, the fallout looks rough.  Namely:

Unethical behavior surreptitiously drives performance (such as in the Teapot Dome bribery scandal of the early 20th century).

Low control of rogue elements destroys entire institutions (such as in the Barings Bank collapse of the 1990s).

Entire financial fictions are erected by complicit management and advisors (such as in the Enron case of the early 2000s).

And, in some cases, good companies are systematically disabled and functionally dismantled by management with incentives very different from boards and shareholders (which occurs in far too many companies worldwide).

None of the bad actors in the named scandals above gave outward reason to doubt their trustworthiness in the times leading up to the scandals; and in some cases they would have recoiled or lashed out with righteous indignation at their higher ups if they were, in fact, questioned.

That’s the refuge of ne’er do wells everywhere–righteous indignation.

Watch for it.

But what to do?

In every case, people in positions of fiduciary and ethical responsibility have the obligation to ask.  But, they have the obligation to ask those who actually can convey reality, not those who are charged with packaging reality for consumption by boards and senior management.

In his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Stanford University professor and author Robert Sapolsky coined a proverb that is quite powerful for people in positions of assurance everywhere… It goes like this:

“If you want to know if the elephant at the zoo has a stomachache, don’t ask the veterinarian, ask the cage cleaner.”

You get it? If you really want to know if something just isn’t right, don’t ask the so-called experts…they rarely have the task of cleaning up the mess.  Ask the people who witness and clean up messes.  Ask people lower down the ladder, whose credibility might not naturally be so high, but whose incentives might also not lead them to unnecessary spin or outright dishonesty.

In other words, ask around.  If you sit on a board or in senior management and find your interactions with rank and file people to be overly stage-managed, then ask some more.

You know why?

Because–with apologies to Verbal Kint–the greatest trick that bad actors pull is convincing the world that they aren’t bad actors.

Reality depends on whom you ask. So, ask around.

I welcome your questions and comments.