February 17, 2018

Learning Leadership: Just a Bunch of BS? | Leading From the Library

Steven BellThere are dozens of definitions of what leadership is, not to mention more books, videos, and blog posts than anyone could consume in a lifetime. Does any of it help us learn to be better leaders?

Each day I receive two different leadership emails. Each of those points me to over a dozen current articles or blog posts written about leadership. On other days I receive links to leadership-oriented essays from Harvard Business Review. There is much more regularly generated leadership content beyond that. I could potentially spend an hour or two any day reviewing and reading leadership literature, not including the latest leadership book or two sitting on my desk. If you consider yourself a student of leadership, you may be in a similar position. Does this investment of time pay off in helping us to be better leaders for our organizations? There are voices emerging that have a simple answer to that question: No.

Experts Are Wrong

Led by the popularity of a new book that lays it on the line, the question being asked is whether all the leadership advice being generated—including, I suppose, this column—has any real value. The exact way that Jeffrey Pfeffer puts it is made clear by his book’s title: Leadership BS. Pfeffer’s proposition asks us to think carefully about leadership and question whether the experts are of use to current and aspiring leaders. Despite being the author of over a dozen leadership books himself, by examining the preponderance of data and anecdotal evidence documenting a growing body of disgruntled and disengaged workers who don’t trust leaders, Pfeffer concludes that the leadership industry has failed. He believes a primary fault is a shift away from the fundamentals of organizational dynamics in leadership development programs. Instead, Pfeffer sees training that focuses too much on being an inspirational leader rather than one who knows how to navigate politics to get things accomplished.

What is a Leader?

This questioning of what it means to be a leader, and what’s the best way to learn how to do that, may be owing to our societal glorification of leadership. In an essay on the contemporary meaning of leadership, Joshua Rothman’s “Shut Up and Sit Down” explores what we mean when we talk about leadership. The problem, from his perspective, is in figuring out how we tell who a real leader is and what that person is capable of, as opposed to someone who is playing the role of leader. That may explain why so many of us are disappointed with the candidate pool for U.S. president. We want a Lincoln, a FDR, or JFK. Rothman writes that “The glorification of leadership makes existing leaders seem disappointing by comparison, leading to an ever more desperate search for ‘real’ leaders to replace them.” Charismatic leaders, the ones who demonstrate the traits and presence that we think of when we describe leaders, sometimes make the worst ones. Rothman suggests we’d be better off to focus on process over traits. Most successful leaders emerge from a filtering process, such as the one that is required to rise to library deanship. If we could change our perspective about what leaders do, we’d be more realistic about their shortcomings and less likely to glorify them. Sounds a bit boring though. We want to be inspired and excited by our leaders.

Expecting More from Leaders

After reading Pfeffer and Rothman, I get the sense that we are challenged to define what leadership is. Leaders are supposed to have the qualities that followers most expect to see. Pfeffer points to five virtues that are most praised: humility, authenticity, honesty, trustworthiness, and putting the organization first. But Pfeffer says that the leaders who get things done rarely exhibit these qualities—so everything we’re told about being a great leader is the source of the BS. There are so many variables and situations that it’s hard to say those qualities always make the difference in what separates great and terrible leaders. Even Rothman acknowledges that in times of crisis the best leaders may be those who are completely unfiltered, have no knowledge of the process, and just rise to the occasion, whether they have a vision or not.

Look Past the BS

Leadership BS is a timely book because it presents questions leaders need to ask if they are thinking critically about their continuous learning process. It would be too simplistic—and, from my perspective, not true—to write off all leadership literature as BS. Despite Pfeffer’s observation that basic leadership skills are inconsequential to outcomes, I still believe that leaders need to bring vision to their organizations and provide the inspiration that influences followers to embrace it and work collaboratively to make it happen. Because it is difficult to measure and offer quantifiable evidence of when leaders make a tough decision and get it right or utilize deft communication skills to defuse a volatile situation, what we can learn about the ways to develop those skills may seem like a load of BS that the leadership industry tries to sell to those of who want to be better leaders.

Yet I can’t disagree with Pfeffer that there is a whole lot of leadership fluff out there. The real challenge is to be selective in what you read and to question whether it helps you to improve yourself as a leader. Let’s remember that much of our learned leadership comes not from what we read or hear in a classroom, but from great leaders who inspire us and model the behaviors on which we base our own leadership style. To my way of thinking, that comes from a genuine place—not manufactured by just another guru who is peddling their own specialty brand of leadership BS.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Joneser says:

    There is an obsession with “leadership” in LibraryLand. Assumptions – 1) you can learn it via a course or a conference 2) if you are in a “leadership” job you automatically are a leader 3) everyone can “lead from wherever you are!”.

    Total BS. You aren’t a leader unless you have willing followers. Pay more attention to good management (which is just as hard). I’d rather have good mgmt. w/o good leadership than good leadership w/o good management.

    A helpful new book = LEAD MORE, CONTROL LESS by Weisbord and Janoff. It’s slow reading for me because I am seeing my organization on every page. Control is NOT leadership; it is the antithesis of it.

    • Thanks for the comment. Seems like it struck a cord with you, perhaps bringing out your cynicism about leadership development. I’d tend to agree with the first two, though not for everyone. See my column that interviews Irene Herold who wrote a book on leadership development programs for librarians. They don’t turn you into a leader but they can help you become a better one. Yes, no one is a leader by virtue of a job title.

      But I don’t think anyone has claimed that “everyone” in the library is a leader. I believe that statement is along the lines “anyone can lead from wherever they are” if they have the desire to do so and are willing to take the risks. By no means is everyone in the library willing to do that

      Yes, it’s important to have good managers for everyday operations but without visionary leaders we’ll probably do little beyond maintaining the status quo. I’d say we need both.

    • Joneser says:

      Steven, I have seen many many references to the “everyone is a leader!” and “Lead from where you are” in articles, conference programs . . . you name it. Fortunately the idea appears to be dying, but in public libraries at least this was a huge theme recently. And you are correct about the risks – “leading” often meant taking on more work and responsibility without actually having any more authority or control. If it became threatening, it was stopped.

      The fundamental issue is having both managers and visionary leaders work together, but too often managers must be “team players” while also trying to keep the doors open.