Gut Check: Who Is Your Leadership Guru?

April 21, 2017 Vince Molinaro

Speaker on stage

Last year, I spoke at a conference in California. Also on the agenda was Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, who was sharing some of his provocative ideas from his book Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time.

Being a big fan of his work, I sat in on his session.

Pfeffer argued passionately to the delegates that all of the billions of dollars that companies spend on leadership training programs, inspirational speeches, and coaching hadn’t really done anything to improve the state of leadership. Workplaces are in dire shape, and trust in leaders is at an all-time low.

I nodded in agreement. In fact, I’ve made many of the same observations in my work.

He called out the leadership development industry – the one that I have called home for many years. Pfeffer argued that rather than helping to build better leaders, we had only served to make the situation worse.

Pfeffer noted that most of what the industry proclaims good leadership looks like is exactly the opposite of what leaders need to do in their organizations.  Whether it’s advice for leaders to be authentic, transparent, vulnerable or emotionally intelligent, Pfeffer believes that, in reality, these things are not what makes leaders successful in their careers. To succeed in big organizations, you need to be ruthless and narcissistic.

He then explained that part of the problem is that anyone can be a self-proclaimed leadership expert in today’s world. One doesn’t even need to have any relevant experience.

As evidence, Pfeffer shared an experience he had when he came across a list of the Top 50 leadership and management experts in a business magazine.  As he skimmed the list, he quickly realized that he didn’t recognize many of the names. He then looked up the top 20 people and researched their backgrounds. It turns out that one person had no college degree, only five had terminal degrees in a relevant field, and two had doctorates in religion. There was little to no experience cited that would suggest they could advise and consult on leadership.

What the top 20 had in common was that they all had written leadership books and did a lot of public speaking.

Now, I felt myself starting to feel a little defensive, and I began to squirm in my seat. “I’ve written leadership books,” I thought to myself. “I’ve done and still do a great deal of speaking.”

Then, Pfeffer confronted his audience with a tough question: “If you were going into surgery, I think you would want to make sure your surgeon did more than write books and speak.” I laughed, as did the audience, but I was not entirely amused. This had been a pretty unsettling speech and had given me a lot to think about.

As fate would have it, a few weeks after I attended that conference I received a call from a former client. He was an unconventional public sector leader who my team and I had helped to completely overhaul the leadership culture at his organization. After that challenge, he moved to another organization leading the municipal government of a large city. He wanted me to help him “really shake things up.”

When I met with him a few days later, he told me that his predecessor had brought in a high-profile leadership expert to provide leadership development training and motivational speeches. This expert also directly advised the senior leaders in this government.

Thanks to this expert, an extremely complicated leadership structure was put in place. Everything was top heavy and siloed.  Soon, all the leaders became obsessed with building their own empires. The culture became divisive, highly competitive, and toxic. Change was needed.

Eventually, many of the top leaders in this government were ousted and my client was brought in to turn things around. We started to work on a plan to help make that happen.

As I left that meeting, my mind immediately turned to Professor Pfeffer. This was exactly the scenario he had talked about. Now, I could see clearly what happens when an organization puts their trust in someone who merely writes and speaks about leadership with no real experience actually leading.

This isn’t an easy blog for me to write.  I’ve spent my career in the leadership development industry and believe it can provide real value to organizations and their leaders. But, I also acknowledge that it’s an industry that attracts far too many ‘wannabees’ and self-proclaimed gurus.

The fact is, the business world is saturated with people claiming to possess leadership expertise. As Pfeffer observed, it seems as though anyone can set up a blog, write a book, start speaking about leadership, or get a coaching certificate over a weekend. Some of these people offer real value; many others do not.  The advice is trite, naïve, and at times even harmful.

If you work in the leadership industry like I do, it’s time we hold ourselves to a higher standard. We must commit to being the best advisers we can be for our clients.

Do not let the allure of fame or being regarded as a ‘leadership guru’ get to your head. It should never be about you; it should be about your clients and the leaders you serve.

If you are in a company and you need to bring in a leadership expert, don’t be mesmerized by the aura – or in some cases the smoke and mirrors – that is presented. Do some real digging into their background and work experience.

Ask some tough questions. How many years has this person been in the leadership industry? Do they have any real business experience? Did they actually work as a leader before telling others how to lead? Have they conducted research or have an academic track record in the leadership development industry?

The cost of getting it wrong can be significant, so it really pays to get it right.

This week’s gut check question asks: who is your leadership guru?

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About the Author

Vince Molinaro

Vince Molinaro is the Global Managing Director of Strategic Solutions at Lee Hecht Harrison. He is also the author of The Leadership Contract – a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. Vince has spent more than 20 years as an adviser to boards and senior executives looking to improve leadership in their organizations.

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