“You Know Your Leadership!”

Posted by jlubans on February 02, 2020

Caption: “You know your history.”

Our Cretan guide, it appeared had had a few too many pints, the night before, of the villainous national wine, retsina.
When explaining an archeological site in the fiercely bright Aegean sun, I’d see her wince and then take a short cut with “Oh well, you know your history” and hurry us along to the next site only to get another truncated history lesson.
It’s how I feel at times when I try to explain what I teach in my class, Leadership and Literature. If I am not misinterpreting, the listener’s eyes glaze over all too quickly as I delve into how I entwine the two notions and theories.
Sensing this, I cut it short with “Well, you know your leadership.”
Yes, you do.
We all hold some ideas – however loose and paradoxical – about leadership. Hundreds of books come out each year trying to define and proselytize a particular theory.
There’s the weighty tome used at one of the service academies re what great thinkers have to say about the topic. I crack it open now and then and marvel at the variety and the multiple definitions. Indeed, it is another doorstopper Norton anthology just like the ones I had to buy and scan in literature classes.
Frankly, the definite book on leadership has yet to be written. Yet, like pornography, we all know it when we see it. Or, maybe better, we know when it is absent, when it fails, when it goes AWOL. Isn’t organizational failure almost always attributed to poor leadership?
There are formulas, there are lists. There are even unlists, e.g. mine for the unboss..
Then there’s ye olde POSDCORB, aka L. Gulick’s “Functions of the Executive”.

POSDCORB, the predominant model of what passes as leadership in 95% of our organizations neither implies nor intends any leadership. Rather, it is a preternaturally careful and cautious way of running a business. While the organization's strategic plan may espouse a "disruptive" or transformational leadership, in reality such activity is despised and repelled - it is why "Change is hard."
Some time ago a trio of authors in my profession enumerated leaderly characteristics, at least 150 of them! The checklist reminded me of the requirement for a Boy/Girl Scout Merit badge.
Brief or lengthy, at best we only have a slippery grasp of any handle on the topic.
One theory works well in one place and fails in another. For example, there were a variety of leaders at California’s now near bankrupt energy company, PGE. Much of the blame for the recent plague of forest fires has been fixed on PGE failures. The PGE leaders ranged from the authoritarian to the collaborative yet failed to stop the disasters. The leaders probably would argue they were never allowed to lead, always interfered with by outside forces, like politicians and other vested interests that sought to control PGE budgets.
We do know something: without followers there is no leadership. Jalen Hurts, a young athlete, said most insightfully, “People let you lead.” If you have it to go with followers respond.
These overheated political times have come up with a bizarre pairing.
The WSJ article, “The People We Admire Most: Obamas and Trumps” declares that Barack Obama and Donald Trump are tied this year as Gallup’s most admired man. It makes clear that leadership is personal, individual; not everyone will agree; indeed leadership is in the eye of the beholder.
Some of our allegiance to a leader is whether we like or not like that person. Clearly the Gallup Poll’s outcome shows how people can hold one leader in esteem and another in contempt: yet, overall, it’s a split vote.
The split suggests just how difficult it is to define leadership. It is unlikely that the two presidents share the same admirable qualities. Perhaps one might say those qualities are miles apart or are interpreted along a continuum rather than as an on or off switch.
Because of this complexity and the lack of any definitive law of leadership, my class makes use of literary and other artistic interpretations of leaders, followers and leadership. While I do allude to the various theories, literary insights help explain the seemingly ineffable.

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© Copyright John Lubans 2020

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