The fallacy of leadership prescriptions

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    Ioannis Papakonstantinou

Thinking loudly on leadership literature…

The literature on leadership expands exponentially. The number of books and articles written on the topic exceeds 3,000,000 and the pace will only accelerate. Leadership is the most contested terrain in all business literature. Academics, practitioners, and lots of “others” are trying to throw light on the “secrets” of leadership effectiveness by examining – broadly or specifically – the traits, skills, minds, hearts, values, behaviors, etc. of leaders. Sometimes, academics conduct research in an attempt to create “models” from existing practice so they can argue that a new kind of leadership has emerged. Famous practitioners develop their own view on leadership, narrowed by their own experiences and try to generalize their own tenured career into more “practical models” with the aim of publishing a book (probably asked by a Publisher) or make a career as motivational speakers.

“What’s wrong with this?” someone would ask. We cannot condemn those attempts since we have to assume that the motives behind them are noble and with the objective to make a contribution to the field. Nevertheless, we must be precautious of all those who aim to standardize leadership in terms of a prescription: “Do this, think like this, attend this leadership training program, adopt these values, be like this, and you will be a successful leader” or they adopt a “To Don’t list”. I am not quite convinced of this. Actually, I am not convinced at all! The problem becomes even bigger when people who never really led anyone are trying to prescribe successful leadership.

Those of us who have taken the journey of leading people in different organizations know very well that leadership is mostly contextual. What succeeded as a leadership style in your previous organization gives you no guarantee that it will be a successful approach to your new employer. How many are the “stars” that succeeded in one company and failed dramatically in their next? Or, put it in a different way, how many managers/leaders were merely satisfactory in one company and thrived in their next position in another company? Even the leadership style that works today in an organization becomes obsolete in few years (months?) time. Phil Rosenzweig’s book The Halo Effect gives numerous examples. Leadership effectiveness depends largely on the “fit”. The fit of the leader with employees, industry, culture, etc. And this fit is not “one size fits all”. It’s a numerous factor – multiplying equation and if one of the factors is zero, then leadership becomes zero!

Hence, next time you come across such kind of prescriptions and models, read them carefully and reflect on them from distance. This can save you from overdose.