The trouble with leadership literature today

The majority of leadership advice circulating today is not backed by legitimate research.

Leadership is a subject that sparks considerable debate: How can leaders improve their current tactics? What makes a good leader? Is skill or personality more important? The demand for leadership studies then becomes an understandable request. Pair this natural curiosity with the fact that employee engagement globally is low, turnover rates are high and leadership insights become a frenzied phenomenon.

However, according to an article written by Stanford University Business School Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer in the McKinsey Quarterly, the leadership jargon that is so often sought out today is extremely disconnected from the realities of organizational management. This is a harsh reality considering that the U.S. alone spends anywhere from $14 billion to $50 billion annually on leadership research.

What exactly is wrong about the leadership material circulating today? Let’s take a look:

“A moral framework for leadership simplifies a complex position.”

A morality tale: One of the biggest problems with widespread leadership thinking is that it has become a sort of morality tale, explained McKinsey. It is a pervasive disconnect that comes down to people’s tendency to focus on what they believe should be true versus what actually is. Much of the advice that stems from leading publications on leadership promotes ideas of authenticity, trust and community – these recommendations represent the side in favor of whimsical thinking. However, there are studies that have found evidence supporting narcissism, self-promotion and lying as a means to successful leadership. People want to believe that the righteous path is the right one but leadership isn’t a tale of morality, it’s a discipline filled with intricacies. Sure, authenticity is helpful, but sometimes there is a need for deceit.

An oversimplification: In the same vein, this moral framework simplifies a very complex position. Leaders are faced with intricate dilemmas and roadblocks on a day-to-day basis. Put simply: sometimes it takes a few bad actions to produce a good result. Great leaders are first and foremost pragmatists. Historical figures like Nelson Mandela, JFK and Abraham Lincoln are all prime examples – they were willing to do whatever it took to achieve their ultimate visions, explains Pfeffer. Attempting to put leadership skills or decisions into boxes of “good” or “bad” does everyone a major disservice. Humans, by nature, are complex creatures and their decisions are equally intricate. While inherent traits dictate actions, scenarios and environment play a key role in our choices as well. A leader can exemplify “good” behavior while making “bad” decisions to reach a strategic goal. This does not make the leader good or bad, it simply makes them a savvy decision maker.

The Kumbaya effect: The good and bad boxing of leadership actions is backed by the increasing prevalence of the ‘Kumbaya’ effect. Professionals today are constantly bombarded with feel-good aphorisms over sound research and insights, explained the Harvard Business Review. The Kumbaya school of thought perpetuates the notion that positivity and hard work are the key to career advancement and while these tools are useful, these insights neglect the gritty reality of office politics. Organizations at their core are hierarchies – nothing more, nothing less. Research supports the notion that the path to power is paved with uncomfortable realities. Promotions can come from kissing up, appearance can be more important than content, competency can be linked to confidence, etc., reported HBR. Professionals today are thirsting for advice that is more realistic and much more complex. There is a surprising lack of evidence backing any of the feel-good aphorisms that are cited so frequently, hence why the Kumbaya effect needs to be reevaluated.

“Humans, by nature, are complex creatures.”

The fact of the matter is the business world is going through a flurry of rapid changes. Leaders today should not look to clichéd jargon to guide their next steps, but, rather, must think strategically and creatively to solve the unique problems that face their industry. Innovation, strategy, execution, vision – these are constant areas for improvement for leaders everywhere. Great leadership is not about following the latest trends or feel-good messages, but building upon these core foundations to create impressive new leadership styles and compound organizational success.

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