Post hoc rationalisation and the myth of leadership

Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

Marc Babej (fellow Corante Hubbite) interviewed Douglas Rushkoff recently and got his reflections on Kevin Roberts and Lovemarks.

Rushkoff is a big sceptic about advertising and essentially said what Roberts does with his Lovemarks schtick is identify some very successful brands, claim to understand them and imply that he knows how to create them.

At best he’s doing for brands what Aristotle did for plays. Still, it has nothing to do with creating them.

Not that Lovemarks is exceptional in this, as a great many business books follow the same rule: point to some obviously successful people/organisations; purport to analyse the “secrets” of their success; and suggest that just following this formula will make you/your company successful too.

Marc’s interview was picked up by David Burn at AdPulp… who also recently linked to this post by Dave Pollard. Pollard is critiquing American culture, but like David I was most interested in what Pollard had to say about the myth of leadership.

Pollard quotes Peter Block

Leadership is a well-developed misconception. The dominant belief is that the task of leadership is to set a vision, enroll others in it and hold people accountable through measurements and rewards. Its a patriarchal system used to create high performance through centralization of power. Most leadership training focuses on how to be a good parent. We teach how to develop people, as if they were ours to develop. We do a lot to create the notion that bosses are responsible for their people. All that parenting has the unintended side effect of creating deep entitlement and having employees stay frozen in their own development. Most management techniques are ways of controlling people so they feel good about being controlled.

These are the most common questions I get from my clients. How do I get people to … and you can fill in the blank after that. My favorite is, How do I get people on board with my ideas/visions/whatever? My response is, How do you know youre in the boat? These are the wrong questions. Theyre the questions of a parent about recalcitrant children. As soon as you start the sentence, youre acting as a sovereign. All of these are components of the patriarchal way of thinking that dominates our culture. Put this in boldface: They are not your children. Once you realize that, real engagement is possible.

and then adds

Peter Block understands the essence of complex systems: No one is in control. What gets done (for better or worse) gets done as a result of the staggeringly complex interactions and personal decisions of everyone. Even in the most hierarchical organizations, far more energy is expended finding workarounds for incompetent management decisions and policies (without offending management, of course) than is spent implementing the odd intelligent insight that management, with all the resources at its disposal, ‘manages’ to come up with. Employees, and customers (who are often treated only slightly less paternalistically than employees), actually have almost all the good ideas that would be needed to make any organization much more successful, but it is taboo to listen to them, to even be accessible to them. That would make the leaders look weak, as if perhaps they don’t have all the answers. And that, of course, is unthinkable.

Actually, Dave Pollard really lets rip in his essay – and though I found it over-the-top at times, I do enjoy his passion, as in this bit:

American business leaders are treated with similar deference and wild adulation, as if they were direct descendants from God. Autobiographical business books ghost-written for insanely overpaid CEOs, pontificating on how to be a successful leader, sell like hotcakes. Case in point: The platitudinous blatherings of Rudolph Giuliani in his book Leadership, featuring chapters on The Importance of the Morning Meeting, Preparing Relentlessly, Making Everyone Accountable, Surrounding Yourself with Great People, Reflecting, then Deciding and on and on. Common sense that any five-year-old would know, sold with enormous success for $25.95 a copy.

Many studies have shown that leadership has little to do with organizational success — successful leaders, for the most part, just happened to be in the right place at the right time with a good group of people already working ‘for’ them (and when they move on to their next overpaid position, usually fail dismally to live up to expectations). No matter — with a high 7-figure annual income, they can retire after one serendipitous success and spare themselves and their adulators the embarrassment of their inability to repeat their divine performance.

The game of branding is plagued by these kinds of errors: far too much clever but flawed analysis of past successes, too much faith in the existence of a magic formula… and a mixture of stasis on some products and grandiose leaps for others.

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