Leadership Snake Oil

In the Agile world these days (or perhaps always) everyone wants to become a Leader. Thus a whole industry has exploded around this idea. If people want to buy it, others will sell it. But what are they selling? And what is it that people really want to buy?

Mostly, the whole thing is a myth—snake oil for the 21st century. You can’t teach people to be leaders. Leadership is an emergent property, and one that is best shared within a creative group. All of us are capable of leading, and only ever in certain contexts. The ones that believe they can lead anything or anyone turn out to be megalomaniacs like Donald Trump.

There are, essentially, two concepts of leadership: a leader of thought, or a leader of people. Thought Leader is (with a few sad exceptions) a designation given to someone based on the work they have done. There is no training course for thought leading. It would be nonsense. So we can assume that the leadership courses on offer teach people to lead other people. And I ask, who would want to do that, and why? The Pied Piper led people. So did Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, Kim Jon Il, and so on. Leadership, and its counterpart, Leader-worship are the joint cause of most of the ills of the world.

Creating a leadership culture does two things, i) empowers a small group of people to believe they are more important, more capable, perhaps even more benevolent than others, and ii) disempowers everyone else, creating a culture of leader-dependency, where people can eschew any responsibility for their actions.

I’m surprised that so many in the Agile world buy into this. Leadership culture seems to me to be the antitheses of Agile. I’ve always thought of Agile as the business counter-culture, yet this is BusinessAsUsual++. Nothing will change until we ourselves start changing.

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating. We don’t need more leaders. We need less. What we need more of is good corporate citizens. We now have hundred of Leadership Development programs, but where are all the Citizenship Development programs? I’ve yet to hear of one.

I invite you to step away from the buzzwords, the accreditations and the glory, and ask yourself: What do I really seek? What is congruent with my beliefs? You may be surprised by what your inner voice answers.

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