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Cutting through modern leadership jargon

Cutting through modern leadership jargon

November 2016 by

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There are enough opinions, theories and suggestions about what makes a good leader to fill entire libraries. The questions are seemingly endless. Are good leaders introverts or extroverts? Do skills or personalities play a bigger role in success? What degrees produce the best leaders? The list goes on.


As such, there is high demand for leadership research which then results in a lot of competing ideas about what does and does not constitute the best leadership practices.


Yet, in a contributing article for the McKinsey Article Stanford University Business School Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer asserts that much of the leadership jargon circulating today is deeply disconnected from what is really needed in organisational management.

What is a good leader

What constitutes a good leader? There are a lot of competing ideas.

So, what do these disconnects look like?

A question of morality: Pfeffer cites morality as the biggest roadblock to sound leadership decisions. Somewhere along the line, leadership thinking became a conversation about righteous decisions vs immoral decisions. A lot of the conversation around leadership excellence focuses on trust, community, honesty and authenticity. While these are important traits, there is a case for their counterparts. In fact, Pfeffer cites studies that found narcissism and deceit are key components of successful leadership. Leadership is not a morality tale. It is a profession that can require a balance between traditionally "good" and "bad" actions.

A simple approach to a complex position: This same moral framework oversimplifies the decisions of leaders. People in these roles are faced with complicated decisions and problems - issues that cannot always be approached in a black and white manner. By grouping leadership traits as "good" vs "bad," we do a disservice to the paths leaders often need to take to arrive at the best possible decision. You can have a leader that makes a "bad" decision to reach a "good" outcome. This does not make them inherently good or bad, it just makes them a strategic decision maker.

By grouping leadership traits as "good" vs "bad" we do a disservice to the paths leaders often need to take.


A feel-good push:
In addition to the "good" and "bad" descriptors given to many leadership actions, the Harvard Business Review discusses something called the 'Kumbaya' effect. Leaders today are constantly fed a variety of feel-good aphorisms over actual research. The Kumbaya effect spreads the idea that positivity and work ethic propel leaders to the top. And while these attributes certainly help, they are not the sole drivers. This feel-good push ignores the harsher realities of office politics. Research backs the notion that appearances and brown-nosing help professionals snag leadership positions yet there is little evidence to support that positivity has the same effect.


There is a lot to be said about leading ideas in leadership. However, the bottom line is: leaders can't fall back on industry jargon to guide their next steps. They need to think strategically and innovatively to truly reach their leadership potential.


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