It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.

It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so 

Mark Twain

We all know what leadership is. It is common knowledge. We can identify leaders by their demeanour, the language they employ, the position they hold, their confidence and charisma, as well as the cut of their clothes. Way too easy!

Wealthy and connected, leaders are the top executives, industrialists, media celebrities and politicians to be seen on television most nights of the week, beguiling us with their composure and cool words, sedating any impulse we might have to question their entitlement to tell us what to do, and how. Imperious, imposing, yet so often caught defending the indefensible, arguing an untenable case, deriding their competitors, or simply imploring us to vote for them in the next election, they nevertheless lead and we dutifully follow. But is that really what happens? Or are we missing some other factors here?

We tend to associate leadership with visionary change and innovation. Sometimes change of that kind is disturbing and can be uncomfortable. Psychologists tell us that it is really the thought of having to change that scares us most – rather than change itself which is, after all, a natural part of life. We adapt in tiny ways all the time – consciously or not. Nevertheless, in the face of imposed change, especially when disinclined to face any hardships that might accompany variations to the humdrum coziness of our current existence, we seek less scary alternatives. 

Social scientists agree that one of the many ways members of a group, organisation or community can push back against (or delay) any perceived ‘threats’ posed by radical change, hoping to preserve a more comforting and relaxed lifestyle in the process, is to seize upon any distinctive lexicon associated with a new model and use this to give the impression that the espoused change is already happening. An illusion is thus formed, at least to the casual observer, that change has been willingly embraced when the opposite is actually true. Sometimes this tactic is so successful that people begin to believe their own myths.

Since the 1950’s the praxis of leading has been misappropriated in service to the procedures and protocols of managing and organising.

The story of how managers supervise, motivate and instruct their staff within the daily routines of organisational life, reveals a startling and sudden shift in thematic emphasis around this time. 

The blurring of leading with managing – two entirely opposing concepts – was highly popular among HR and training professionals. But this was no mere accident. In some ways it was a conscious form of propaganda designed to capitalise on the high levels of industrial productivity following the end of the 2nd World War, and to keep a fragile status quo intact so that the vital job of post-war reconstruction could be undertaken. 

The final nail in the coffin of leadership became evident with the international success of a prescriptive management model called Situational Leadership published by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard in the late 1970’s. This crude reinterpretation and dumbing down of leadership as a management tool was immediately taken up by the business schools and propagated by successive waves of trainers and consultants who saw the opportunity to make a quick buck. 

But the vulgarization of leadership in this manner was to have dire and unforeseen consequences that haunt us still. For one thing it stamped out creative dissent and the imagination so badly needed by industry to stay ahead in a world where competition was becoming intense. It took the idea of combative behaviour and installed it inside the enterprise. Worse still it shone the spotlight on hierarchical status by elevating managers and their financial controllers who had a ‘scarcity’ mindset on a pedestal. This inevitably slowed decision-making, ingraining a culture of caution and a lack of strategic risk-taking, to the extent that instrumental competence became the source for much management development. 

One must also remember that all of this was happening at the same time continuous process improvement was becoming the favoured management fad – thus reinforcing a focus on process control, precision, and discipline. And in spite of the fact that Dr. W. Edwards Deming – one of the doyens of Total Quality Management – made a case throughout his career for the reinstatement of genuine leadership, as distinct from management, his arguments were largely misunderstood, or fell on deaf ears. 

Today, to all intents and purposes, genuine leadership has become irrelevant: at best justified as the surrogate for advanced forms of management.

Meanwhile the gritty, audacious, persistent, if occasionally unpalatable, but ruthlessly inspiring aspirations of genuine leaders are rapidly becoming defunct – lost in the catacombs of financial managerialism without so much as a simple ceremony to mourn their passing. 

Apart from a few recognisable outliers like Elon Musk, Jack Ma, Aung San Suu Kyi, Malala Yousafzai, Jacinda Ardern, David Attenborough, Pope Francis and Greta Thunberg for example – unexceptional individuals who morphed into leaders by dint of their burning beliefs and sheer obstinacy, rather than the possession of any distinctive expertise – combined with conditions that were conducive to their emergence, but over which they had little or no control, genuine leaders are rare. 

This is a huge problem for us because genuine leadership, legitimately undertaken, is an imperative if we are to tackle the existential problems facing humanity. Sadly we have become lazy in our use of language and complicit in tolerating interpretations of leading and leadership that are insipid, erroneous, uninviting versions of their authentic spirit. 

Thus, while people in positions of authority, and others able to wield power in one form or another, are designated leaders and persistently characterise themselves in this light, a fact which we then unconsciously reify by failing to question that premise, they often lack the humility, humanitarian ethos, empathy, collaboration, integrity and resilience to don the mantle of genuine leadership. 

In part the concept of leadership grafted surgically onto the more vital and living stem of management continues to be deliberately cultivated. Most conveniently it avoids disturbing the status quo, thus circumventing the ills we assume could be unleashed by having to deal with the unsettling and uncertain changes genuine leaders invariably bring in their wake. The idea such changes might also usher in new meanings and a revitalised purpose concerning what it means to be human (in an age already dubbed “the anthropocene” from the human-generated activities we casually impose on the Earth’s ecosystems and climate) in addition to profoundly exciting possibilities for a future that benefits everyone, is almost always never contemplated. 

As a consequence the default position of our obsession with equating leadership with management is entirely negative. While we contend that we need more leaders, in addition to more compassionate leadership, we remain fearful of what might actually ensue that will cause us personal inconvenience, aggravation or loss.

The fact is we remain fearful of the changes genuine leaders might implement for one absurd reason: we have been constantly brainwashed into believing that such changes will diminish us in some form. If change hurts, is difficult to implement, feels strange or seems unnecessary, we work hard to repel it. And so we resort to various ploys so as to keep real leadership at bay – sequestered in some latter-day Pandora’s box we dare not approach, let alone unlock, even if we had the key.

The vacuum thus created is rationalised away. As previously noted the most common trick is to equate leadership with management, thereby neutralising its potency for motivating even conscious evolution. But there are other deceits we can and do use. 

One is to qualify the term leadership in a variety of ways to create an illusion that leadership is indeed the subject and, exactly like management, can be coded, taught, bought, replicated and exploited. Situational leadership, transformational leadership, visionary leadership, strategic leadership, servant leadership, team leadership, transactional leadership, cross-cultural leadership, technical leadership and values-based leadership, for example, are all slightly dissimilar ways of approaching the vagaries of administering the human element in any organisation. They are based upon legitimate management theories. 

Even though the authors of these methods will abuse me, such well-known products and approaches have absolutely nothing to do with leadership per se yet everything to do with management. Leadership is an unruly savant. It can not be taught, nor can it be pressed into well-ordered schemes, competencies, charters, inflexible protocols or politically correct frameworks. 

Yet another ruse is to confuse the designation leader with a prerequisite for particular skills, knowledge or experience – a concept inherited from and applied in the context of management and enthusiastically promulgated by the head-hunting industry – or to equate a leader with anyone who has some form of executive authority in managing an enterprise. To anyone who is familiar with the current obsession with bland lookalike MBA graduates, all of whom seem to possess an actuarial mentality, this is laughable. That it is treated with such gravitas in the corridors of power should be the real cause for concern.

Whereas management is all about process performance, practical provisioning, and the confidence to configure and organise resources in ways that lead to the efficient execution of agreed plans within normative operating conditions – leadership was never about such activities. 

To be blunt leadership has nothing even remotely to do with management. And while we might find individuals who are capable of both managing and leading, leadership should not be construed as an advanced form of human supervision and control, even though this is implicit in the functional way leadership development is still advocated by a majority of large organisations. 

Leadership should be an engaging, disruptive, audacious, playful and inventive state of being. A narrative with its own unique twists and turns.

The capacity to lead is not even something that individuals possess in isolation. In a very fundamental way the truest expressions of leadership are to be found in the mutual cooperative capacity of social systems to effect improvement to one or more aspects of the human condition for everyone’s advantage. Furthermore, while we often refer to an individual who facilitates such life-changing phenomena as the leader, the resulting experience of leadership is invariably a collaborative undertaking – the efforts of many rather than that of any one persona. 

When perceived in this way it becomes obvious that management and leadership are the strangest of bedfellows. For while managers try to get the best out of the resources they possess to benefit a small group of designated stakeholders, leaders are intent on making the world’s most life-critical systems work better for everyone, irrespective of how much that might cost. 

Clearly the tensions embedded within these distinctions are palpable. They tug us in conflicting directions. In other words the two concepts are diametrically opposed to one another. For while management juggles within the dynamics exerted by current conditions, leadership seeks to escape those same forces in order to shape alternative possibilities. Indeed the idea of escape velocity – the energy required to overcome the gravitational pull of an overpowering present-to-past dynamic – is what fuels both the impulse and the capacity to lead.

Looking back on today’s leaders it is easy to spot their nakedness. Unlike a solitary Icarus flying too close to the sun they routinely fall to earth in the full glare of the media. Not having all the answers may account for their hesitation and their dented pride. Lacking the capacity to comprehend complex dynamics makes them dither. Unable to communicate their deepest feelings without a script or an autocue reveals only empty husks of latent humanity. 

The truth is our emperors have no clothes. They have nowhere to hide. And in the end that makes us all vulnerable.