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!



1 reply
  1. Chris DeSoiza
    Chris DeSoiza says:

    Well said. Those who look to find a formula for being a leader shouldn’t be leaders. The only thing I wish was that they could have used 80’s Hair Bands as the example!


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