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'The End of Leadership' peddles the idea of an impotent industry

Barbara Kellerman, an academic leadership all-star, argues in her latest book that her own industry — the one that tries to teach leadership — is pointless in an era in which power has shifted from leaders to followers.

April 29, 2012|By Philip Delves Broughton

To anyone who does not make a living peddling leadership courses, it might seem unsurprising to be told the whole leadership industry is nonsense. Whoever took seriously all those professors cruising the corporate training circuit promising leadership magic? Of all the dubious subjects chosen by academics, leadership may well be the most dubious.

Barbara Kellerman, the James MacGregor Burns lecturer in public leadership at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, is an academic leadership all-star. So it is hard to know what to make of her latest book published by HarperBusiness, "The End of Leadership." Is it really kryptonite? Or just a harmless act of devil's advocacy designed to goad her peers?

"Put directly, the leadership industry is much less than meets the eye," she writes. "For whatever the industry's small, generally narrow successes, humankind writ large is suffering from a crisis of confidence in those who are charged with leading wisely . . . and from a surfeit of mostly well-intentioned but finally false promises made by those supposed to make things better."

She argues that the leadership industry has been peddling the idea that great leaders can change the world. This worked in a time when followers actually believed in their leaders. When Americans did not know of rumors that President Kennedy was sleeping with several different women, they believed in the vision of Camelot.

It does not work now, when the former congressman Anthony Weiner can be brought down for the comparatively mild offense of tweeting X-rated pictures of himself.

Power, Kellerman argues, has shifted decisively into the hands of followers rather than leaders. Followers — by which she means those of us who are not leaders — expect more in every way.

Customers demand to know more about the companies from which they buy. Voters want to know everything about politicians, from the names of their children and dogs to whether they wear boxers or briefs. The moment politicians prevaricate about opening up their personal lives, we assume they are hiding something and are thus not to be trusted. We use the most minute details of executive compensation to attack those executives we do not like.

Kellerman blames the "Oprah-ization of American culture" for convincing us that "we have an absolute right to know everything there is to know about anyone who is a person of interest."

But you cannot pin everything on Winfrey. There are also innovations in technology that have been embraced by a generation with very different standards of privacy.

Those born to a Facebook and Twitter world are ready to share details that their parents would shudder to know. The protesters of the Arab Spring used these technologies to share information at a previously unthinkable speed, much faster than the objects of their protest could keep up.

As a result, leaders are just not the stars they used to be. We know too much about them, and hold them to impossible standards. They do not have the same room to maneuver anymore. We chase them down using social media, having started from the premise that they are all crooks anyway.

So, what is the point of trying to teach leadership when leaders have become impotent, and what matters is the crowd? Not much, concludes a remarkably downbeat Kellerman. Her industry, she says, needs to rethink its purpose or become obsolete.

Perhaps she and all the other leadership professors will take the next logical steps and stop teaching, and offer their resignations. That would be a true revolution.

Delves Broughton is a contributor to the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared, and author of a new book from Penguin, "The Art of the Sale: Learning from the Masters About the Business of Life."

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