Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and...

Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and...

By Jim Stroup

Fall 2011 Soundings 7

Jim Stroup is a management consultant specializing in organizational leadership. From Managing Leadership.

Have you ever noticed that when people talk about leadership, the unspoken but overpowering assumption is that it is a positive and constructive force? Have you ever questioned that presumed relationship? If you have, what sort of reaction did you get?

The falsity of this putatively inviolable connection is among the most grave of the many very serious problems with the modern leadership movement’s (MLM) concept of individual leadership in organizations.

It is most important to see that to the extent that there are naturally magnetic leaders—whether self-developed, identified as latently promising and cultivated, or even somehow just plain taught—there is absolutely no inherent connection between the nature of that leadership in those individuals, and the value placed in your organization’s goals by its owners and its customers. Indeed, it might be argued that the very hypnotic power to cause people to rapturously drink the Kool-Aid is itself highly suggestive of leadership of which you ought to be most skeptical. As Peter Drucker once famously said, “Leadership is all hype. We’ve had three great leaders in this century— Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.”

Consider this: When the assorted MLM gurus trot out their exemplars of the various representations they offer of the “essential” leadership characteristics, they tend to use one such ideal for each trait. Ever notice that? The thing is, if you look closer, you will find that many of those celebrated for their expression of one “vital” trait simply don’t have many of the others so described—or even, in truth, are infamous for having the opposite of such another trait.

But Drucker’s alarmingly influential trio and countless other such examples throughout political, military, and business history, ancient and modern, tend to be the complete package—virtual poster children for MLM depictions of leadership, from passion to vision to humility to, in their own tortuously distorted ways, integrity and honesty. Certainly even today, it is disturbingly easy to find such individuals who manifestly have it all.

Does anyone in your organization have it all? Are you sure you want them there? How about the “leaders” you believe you are selecting and developing in your training programs? How wise is it to instill in such as them the inevitable sense of entitlement and expectation of followership, and then to release them back into your units? Similarly, how sure are you that those outside candidates you recruit so confidently because they most completely fit the trait templates for leadership are really safe to set loose on your organizations? Whenever you discuss the notion of individual leadership in organizations—especially in your organizations—be sure to address as well the question of what it is, to challenge the demonstrably untenable assumption that it is somehow an inherently constructive force in your midst. Do not engage in discussion of leadership on its terms. Insist on doing so on the basis of your own carefully determined and delineated requirements. You may be surprised by what you actually begin to see.

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