Is the Term Leader Obsolete?

Umair Haque believes that leaders are responsible for the breakdown of our institutions and organzations.  In some ways he is right.  an updated persepctive on how we should manage our institutions would be healthy.

Clearly, most of those aspiring to the leader label have let us down. So now what? I propose that we develop a cadre of leaders who are willing to stand by a set of prescribed principles and virtues; further, I would suggest that we update the definition of leadership to incorporate the unique features of a global society.

Is it possible that the term “leader” has lost its allure, its freshness.?  Is it time to dump it and move on to a more meaningful term that has not as yet been blemished by organizational theory and practice — something more hip, with a little more pizazz?  That’s where Umair Haque is choosing to “lead” us — on a magical mystery tour of terminology and semantics.  But there is some truth in his offering.

Blogging for the Harvard Business Review, Umair Haque launches in by condemning the leadership of world leaders; in his words, ” This relationship isn’t working out…We’ve tried to make it work.  But it’s not us — it’s you (really)”.  To this extent, I agree — many of those in positions of leadership are just not getting the job done.  And it’s embarrassing.  In this global society, every failure, every demolition is a condemnation of the capitalist principles we have been dumping on the rest of the planet.

After a great deal of careful thought about leadership as a concept, Mr. Haque suggests that the problem is “leadership itself”.  In his view, rather than continuing with a “relic of 20th century thinking”, we should be “rebooting” leadership — coming up with a new way of managing people and institutions.

Haque suggests that the way we define leadership and the way we allow individuals to execute it is the problem. Let me present an alternative interpretation. The problem is not that leadership is obsolete; the problem is that the concept is in fact too advanced.   There are still many who are oblivious of what leadership means in spite of the masses of literature on the subject.  Just as our religious teachings and writings espouse love for humanity, there are those who will subvert their intent via  convenient misinterpretation.  There are others who chose an expeditious path or fear the loss of control that they feel would accompany embracing true leadership.  Leadership concepts seem clear enough; still leaders, due to ignorance or for personal reasons chose to abandon the game plan.

Following are summaries of Umair Haque’s arguments:

  1. Leadership skills were developed for a 20th century economics; the skills are not timeless.  He provides a couple of definitions of leadership that seem to support his view.  Really?  Leadership IS a timeless concept.  There have been leaders well before the 20th century and there will be leaders long after.  Leadership is a concept that continues to be redefined as the times dictate.  Most recently, the internet has created a need to re-examine how we can lead in a networking environment.
  2. Leaders do not lead.   Large emerging organizations create a need for someone to be a leader — specifically to navigate the politics of being a leading organization.  The role he describes is more of a manager of complexities.  There are individuals “lucky” enough to be the heads of organizations that were “lucky” enough to be every successful.  We have incorrectly assumed that these are great organizations with great “leaders”.  Being in the right place at the right time does not make someone a leader; leadership is earned just as respect is earned.  Still, there are organizations that experience success because of leadership.  And there are examples of this success cited in Mr. Haque post.  In fact, I was fortunate enough to work for a leader who worked the leadership principles with excellence.  And because he did his organization thrived.
  3. Leaders are employed to lobby for and help sustain dying organizations that would serve society best by dying a gracful death.  I agree.  There are individuals who fill this role and who are retained for this purpose.  However, I question whether these people are in fact leaders.  Calling someone a leader does not in fact a leader make.
  4. Since our institutions and organizations are in fact broken and outdated, our greatest challenge is not leadership but “building” better organizations.   Calling those who run our organizations by a different label isn’t going to change the quality of leadership or buildership.  In my mind, we still simply don’t get it.  Further, what Haque is suggesting is a redefinition of what leadership means.  Since we must address the challenges of the day, this is a healthy process.
  5. Leadership is the art of becoming, well, a leader. Constructivism, in contrast, is the art of becoming a builder — of new institutions. Like artistic Constructivism rejected “art for art’s sake,” so economic Constructivism rejects leadership for the organization’s sake — instead of for society’s.  I think it is healthy to continue to find new ways to look at the world and refine our thinking.  I think a number of the principles identified in this post are worthy of inclusion in a revised definition of leadership;  just as Bill Murray continued to relive Ground Hog Day until he understood the message and got it right, humanity will continue to experience disintegration and disunity until we get it right.  Still inventing a new term simply does not address the issue.  For a person to lead, they must understand the principles of leadership and  commit to understanding and executing the principles.  The people Hague is talking about in his article simply are not leaders.  Haque provides a list of individuals he calls either leaders or builders.  In my model, there are those who lead successfully in a particular way and there are those who lead for the purpose of building.  Further, in this list, there are some who are still trying to make their case as leaders who build (Obama) and those who have no business in a list of leaders (Palin).
  6. The 21st century doesn’t need more leaders – nor more leadership. Only Builders can kick start the chain reaction of a better, more authentic kind of prosperity.   What we need are more leaders who understand leadership and have the commitment to work it; I agree that “builders” are a critical part of this definition of leadership.
  7. Finally, Haque provides an arbitrary and convenient set of principles of constructivism.  For example, in his first principle he implies that leaders don’t learn from experience.  I think that true leaders would disagree with this belief.  I could spend a complete post examining these rpinciples.

I like that fact that Mr. Haque is starting a consultation on this issue.  He is quite right in assuming that many individuals that we call leaders are in fact failing to lead.  He is also right in stating that these people are in key positions and their lack of quality leadership has contributed to the deterioration of our  institutions.  However, twinning the concept of leadership with these absent landlords of leadership is problematic.

Put the blame where it belongs — not on the concept, but on the individuals failing in their responsibilities.  Continue to refine the definition of what leadership means by adding ideas such as inclusivity, unity and the good of all.

One thought on “Is the Term Leader Obsolete?

  1. Jack McLean

    Dear Craig,

    A wonderful discovery is this blog of yours! Many congrats on a fine job well done. I like the new approcach you have taken to the concept of leadership. Very timely in today’s world.

    Respectfully yours,

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