The Leadership Paradox

02/28/2015 06:18 pm ET | Updated Apr 30, 2015

Peter Drucker, who many consider the father of modern management, once said, "We know almost nothing about management, that is why we write so many books on the subject." The same might be said for leadership. There are more than fifty thousand titles available and hundreds more being published almost every month. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent annually on countless workshops and courses to train leaders. The question is, with all of these writings, workshops and investments in leadership development why are there apparently so few leaders at the same moment the demand for leadership is increasing?

A cursory review of organizational and management theory and consulting industry offerings over the last 50 years will reveal a series of ideas, models and approaches for attempting to bring about changes in the ways people work: organizational culture, new ways of measuring performance, various systems for controlling people and processes, creating new 'paradigms', reducing costs, improving quality, reengineering, coaching and of course leadership. Most recently, the distinction 'transformational' leadership has become vogue along with various other 'transformational' approaches to change. There is a growing recognition of the need for breakthroughs, new 'mindsets' and the ever-popular call to 'think outside of the box'.

It is easy to become cynical and relegate all of these conversations to being the 'flavor of the month' and explain them away as futile attempts to change human behavior or institutional 'reality'. We might justify them as worth trying even if, in most cases, the investment falls short of the intended outcomes. The Wall Street Journal reported a number of years ago that in spite of billions of dollars invested, an estimated 70% of 'reengineering' projects fell short of expectations when implementing new designs, primarily because of 'human and cultural' resistance to change and/or a lack of leadership.

I offer a radically different view. The case can be made for most of these efforts having succeeded to one degree or another. Even those which failed having contributed to our understanding of what doesn't work and more importantly beginning to show us the underlying paradigm that inherently blinds us to possibility and often thwarts change. True transformation occurs only when we are able to create a new paradigm that includes but is not limited by the old. Doing so begins by calling into question the conventional wisdom we hold about leadership and challenging our existing assumptions about 'causality' in general and the source of leadership in particular.

In my experience a large part of the problem is that most of the books and models are attempting to describe or explain leadership and what leaders do after the fact. This would be analogous to attempting to understand coaching by looking at the score board. Very few academics and consultants have focused their inquiry on what was present before history acknowledged a leader or created the 'story' of how an individual leader achieved success. Even though many leadership models will offer a list of qualities such as courage, charisma or perseverance as keys to being a leader they fail to show pathways for developing those qualities, which leaves the prevailing belief that at the end of the day, leaders are born differently than the rest of us or in one way or another are special or 'gifted'.

I suggest we need to step back and consider leadership as a phenomenon, and ask what we mean when we use the term. For example, it is almost impossible to imagine a leader as a solitary entity -- there are always others to follow. If this is so, then perhaps leadership is more of a social phenomena than the product of an individual's vision or some set of competencies. Perhaps leadership is a product of relationship and shared commitments and concerns --- the group calls forth its leader. Perhaps leadership is inherently paradoxical in that it is inclusive of both the individual and the group or team or community. If this is so, then leadership is a context, a powerful opening for innovation and something new to emerge. From this perspective, leadership isn't about process, or technique, or some set of skills beyond the capacity to be authentic and committed to a possibility larger than oneself.
Leadership from this perspective is the ability to operate within the present and appreciate the larger context: that results and possibilities grow not from our individual choices only but from the power and contributions of those we lead.