Sunday, May 25, 2014

Kellerman - The End of Leadership

“while the leadership industry has been thriving – growing and prospering beyond anyone’s early imaginings – leaders by and large are performing poorly, worse in many ways than before, miserably disappointing in any case to those among us who once believed the experts held the keys to the kingdom.”  A pretty sobering assessment of the impact of the work of educators, consultants, coaches, and institutions which over the last 40 years dedicated considerable time and resources to leadership learning.  Is Kellerman on target in her End of Leadership (2012) or was the book intended as provocation for serious questions that will improve the field?

Kellerman’s perspective isn’t only about the ineffectiveness of leadership programs but it is also about disillusionment with government and business, the academy and in the professions, and even religion.  As a result of failures in leadership in so many areas, the esteem in which leaders used to be held has eroded and for some evaporated.  “Power and influence have continued to devolve from the top down – those at the top having less power and influence; those in the middle and at the bottom having more.  For their part, followers, ordinary people, have an expanded sense of entitlement – demanding more and giving less.”  The point – focusing on the heroic role of leader is not effective, or practical, in the 21st century and the importance of followers, or collaborators, has become much more important – especially as an antidote to bad leadership.

I have been a great fan of Kellerman’s work and have cited her widely in my writing, especially in Deeper Learning in Leadership.  I embrace her perspective as a challenge that all need to hear.  Her recommendations include, “the leadership industry must, at a minimum, make four changes.  It must end the leader-centrism that constricts the conversation.  It must transcend the situational specifics that make it so myopic.  It must subject itself to critical analysis.  And it must reflect the object of its affection – change with the changing times.”  Things aren’t good and we appear not to be making progress in cultivating good leadership and followership.  However, I wish she had included reference in The End of Leadership to the work of student affairs educators who, in many ways, have embraced the values and perspective she advocates from the very beginning of their work in leadership learning. 

The omission of student affairs as part of the “leadership industry” may be a good thing considering Kellerman’s critique.  However, the student affairs programs deserve both the same recognition and critique that Kellerman delivered to the rest of the industry.  Kellerman has been aware of student affairs at least from 1998 forward when she chaired and  I attended the first conference of what would eventually become the International Leadership Association.  The first conference was focused on the scholarship of leadership; it was very exciting but I made the point to Kellerman at the close of the meeting that there was an entire cadre of student affairs staff who had been involved in leadership learning for quite some time.  She was very responsive and asked me if I would help to draw them into the organization.  I was delighted at her response and proceeded to tap the network of student affairs people to get them involved the next year.  The influx of student affairs people the next year boosted the attendance and led to the creation of the “Leadership Educator” interest group that has provided the structure for member involvement since that time.

The End of Leadership is a compelling and eye-opening indictment that 40+ years of leadership learning efforts in all sectors has failed!  All those who are interested in leadership and followership should heed Kellerman’s provocative critique and should double-down to make certain that these efforts are worthy of both critique and accolade.

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