Before you sign up for that leadership workshop or weekend retreat beware the flim-flammery of the ‘leadership industry’

When was the last time you heard a CEO say: “I’m so glad I attended that team-building-for-leaders weekend”? Or have you ever heard a senior executive marvel: “I’ve been so much more innovative since I attended the blue-sky-thinking-for-leaders workshop!” And how many times have you attended an “exclusive leaders breakfast” only to find yourself sitting at a table of pleasant but not exactly C-suite material listening to a second-rate speaker on the secrets of successful networking?

Spruikers of leadership “products” promise big but rarely deliver. They know that all they have to do is stick the word “leadership” to whatever they’re flogging and they will clean up.

No connection to leadership is too obscure or ridiculous, such as the “body language for leaders” course. The course’s promise: “Learn the six nonverbal signals you need to establish a leadership presence.”

Unlike most business fads, leadership as a buzzword has shown remarkable staying power. The problem with buzzwords is that the more pervasive they become the less clear their meaning.

Leadership genuinely fascinates, as it should; it’s why people that are determined to achieve business and career success are so hungry for the essential elements of leadership. What is it that sets a hero-CEO apart from an also-ran CEO? What are the attributes of a CEO who successfully turns a struggling business around? What is it about your boss that would make you follow her to the gates of hell and/or Ikea?

The answer does not lie in the flim-flammery of the leadership industry. And make no mistake, it is an industry, populated by product-wielding leadership consultants, trainers, facilitators, authors, academics, coaches and speakers.

Leadership spivs (they would much prefer “guru”) are easily identified. They typically share these attributes: a fondness for obscure postnominals, a mystical reverence for anything written on butchers’ paper, a tendency to attach great meaning to the bleeding obvious, the capacity to render normally resilient people insensible, and the belief that the more complex the diagram the deeper the insight.

They also tend to speak in mysterious tongues. Take this gibberish from a Melbourne “speaker, facilitator, coach, mentor, author” et alia: “Australian leadership teams are unsustainably over-committed on activities that will not achieve the phase shift you need.” Whatever.

Oddly enough, most of these self-proclaimed leadership gurus seem to have in common the distinction that none has ever been a chief executive.

The leadership industry’s little secret

The leadership industry has an inconvenient little secret: you can’t teach someone to be a leader. You either have the makings of a leader or you do not. Someone who is demonstrably not a leader cannot be taught to be one. And yet the leadership industry continues to prosper, based on the false but alluring premise that a leader’s halo is one workshop away.

If you do have innate leadership qualities, there are certainly skills and attributes that can be learned, honed and refined as your career progresses. But as to whether the leadership industry can transform a mild-mannered middle manager into an Alan Joyce, Richard Goyder or Gail Kelly: save your money.

There is no instant pathway to the C-suite. Successful leadership consists of multiple attributes. We may take a leader’s technical knowledge as a given, but then there are those singular attributes that distinguish one leader from another.

Even the most penetrating analysis of leadership in action will not unlock what makes a successful CEO tick. Such studies will guide and inspire, shed light on new ideas and techniques, they may even plant a seed that turns into a garden of plenty, but they won’t turn you into someone you’re not.

When corporate leaders reflect on the training and education that has shaped their careers it may not surprise that weekend retreats with former football stars, workshops facilitated by certified masters of the Six Thinking Hats or presentations by spruikers of leadership development “tools” tend not to figure.

Almost universally successful leaders will cite the impact of either a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree, or increasingly, executive education courses at blue-chip business schools. What both have in common is the value placed on the exposure to high-level executives in their “cohorts”. The experience of those executives and how they handle particular problems and issues means much more to emerging leaders than off-the-shelf leadership courses.

MBA graduates often cite the benefits of building life-long networks, opening up career opportunities in new sectors and even new countries, and compressing years of valuable knowledge in a one- or two-year MBA program.

The MBA has been a staple of management and leadership education for more than a century.

Harvard University offered the first MBA in 1908, while the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business offered the first Executive MBA in 1943. The University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Business School pioneered the MBA in Australia, awarding its first degree in 1965.

It’s not always smooth sailing for the MBA. Times of economic upheaval, financial crisis and corporate collapses give rise to questions about the relevance or currency of MBAs. Business schools regularly review their programs, seeking to strike the right balance between theory and practical skills.

MBAs not out of the GFC woods yet

MBA programs around the world faced arguably their most serious existential crisis following the global financial crisis when business schools were held to account for the wayward behaviour of MBA-toting executives.

Business schools expressed their mea culpas, did their penance and brought their MBA programs into the 21st century.

But MBAs are not out of the GFC woods yet. The global economy has failed to regain its equilibrium and remains skittish. This partly reflects the seismic shock of the 2007-08 meltdown. It also coincides with the dawn of the digital economy spearheaded by rapid and profound developments in “disruptor” digital, artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies which are transforming consumer behaviour, work practices, business models and whole industry structures.

The economy is in transition, arguably its most significant in a century, which inevitably casts a deep shadow over traditional avenues of learning.

Even the venerable MBA is feeling the pressure.

Much of that pressure is coming from short and intense executive education courses which once complemented the MBA. Now they rival the MBA as busy executives working in hothouse environments of change look for the benefits of the MBA in a fraction of the time.

In the United States, the spiritual home of the MBA, some business schools have called time on the once sacrosanct MBA. The University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, Wake Forest University’s School of Business in North Carolina and Virginia’s Pamplin College of Business have ended their full-time MBA programs as a result of flagging student demand. The Wisconsin School of Business recently reversed a decision to suspend its full-time MBA program following an outcry from its alumni, but the school will continue a review of its business strategy.

University of Iowa provost Sue Curry explains that the decision to discontinue the traditional MBA anticipates “the business education that students and employers need to thrive in a changing economy”.

The impact of a changing economy will be no less felt in Australia’s overcrowded MBA marketplace.

With 40 universities, business schools and private providers offering MBAs a consolidation of the market is surely inevitable. This is no bad thing. A buoyant market is more accommodating of the varying standards that 40 MBA programs must entail.

It remains to be seen whether those “leadership” retreats, workshops, training modules and exclusive breakfasts/lunches are also thinned out. We can only hope so.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

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