Christopher Wilson & Assoc.

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Location: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

It’s not leaders that are the problem. It’s leadership.

MacLean’s Editor Andrew Coyne has twice this past week weighed in on the leadership issue, wondering where have all the good leaders gone and why so many seem to be less than honest.

He is not alone in this. Many Canadians wonder the same.

Earlier this month a poll from Toronto’s Gandalf Group[1], found that among several occupations, politicians, political staff and lobbyists were considered least likely by respondents to behave ethically—far less so than union leaders, CEOs and journalists. Half of Canadians say that they do not trust politicians to behave ethically in their roles, compared with only 13% who say they do.

Canadians seem to be more critical of the ethical behaviour of politicians in general than with specific types of politicians. And they are most critical of party leaders, Mayors, and Premiers, compared with their local MPs, MPPs, MLAs and city councillors. Sixty-three per cent agreed with the proposition that “politics has a tendency to corrupt otherwise honest people” and most believe that politicians regularly engage in a wide array of questionable and unethical activities in office.

However, the issue of ethical leaders is not just a Canadian problem, according to Time magazine “nearly every pillar of American society has revealed itself to be corrupt, incompetent or both” [2]. Neither is this strictly speaking a North American trend, as evidenced by the MP expense scandal that wreaked havoc on the UK Parliament in 2009.[3]

The problem is not just the presence of a few bad apples, although one could debate “few” given the constant ‘perp walk’ of public officials in the media. No, the problem is not about bad leaders as much as the very notion of leadership itself in a modern context. Another survey[4] by the Institute for Research on Public Policy and Nanos Research, found that only 9.4% of Canadians had confidence in the federal government’s ability to solve problems, while 18% had no confidence at all. This is a far, far cry from the 70% confidence levels that the federal government enjoyed in the 1960s and 70s. And as bad as this may be federally, things were even worse for the provincial governments. Still, after digging into the responses, researchers concluded that when Canadians said they had lost confidence in government, what they were really saying is that they doubted whether Canadian government leaders are willing and able to develop the partnerships needed to solve the complex, transformational issues that mattered to them most. The respondents believed that the issues were too big for the leaders to handle on their own, but they didn’t know how to work with others to do it either. Complexity saps public confidence in leaders.

 “To deal with the complexities of today’s world,” says Wayne Wouters,[5] former Clerk of the Privy Council and most senior public servant, “we need to work with each other, and we all need to collaborate with citizens, the private sector, academia and civil society to resolve the problems and challenges we face. … Collaboration, consultation, partnerships – these need to be the hallmarks of the Public Service of Canada in the future.” Even so, it’s one thing to say collaboration should be the hallmarks of the government. It is quite another to actually be collaborative in government – largely because long traditions of top-down leadership.

But as it turns out leadership is not purely a government problem. Is the current generation of business leaders any more up to the task of catalyzing, empowering, and collaborating? A global study[6] by the Center for Creative Leadership suggests not. While 98% of the senior executives they surveyed believed it was “extremely important” for them to work effectively across boundaries in their leadership role (see Figure 1), only 7% of executives believed they were “very effective” at doing so. In a related CCL survey, more than 90% of respondents said that collaboration was vital for their leadership success. However, when asked, “Are the leaders of your organization good at collaboration?” fewer than 50% replied that their leaders were actually good at it. “In a horizontal world,” say O’Leary and Vij, “there are many times when collaboration is needed, but often one does not know how to do it and do it well. Collaboration yields immense leadership challenges.” [7]

Figure 1: Boundary Spanning Priorities of Senior Executives
 Source: Jeffrey Yip, Chris Ernst and Michael Campbell. 2011. Boundary Spanning Leadership: Mission Critical Perspectives from the Executive Suite. Center for Creative Leadership

According to the Mckinsey Quarterly, “Leaders … are operating in a bewildering new environment in which little is certain, the tempo is quicker, and the dynamics are more complex. They worry that it is impossible for chief executives to stay on top of all the things they need to know to do their job … they feel overwhelmed.”[8]

The Economist recently asked, “Why the big gap between trust in leaders and the institutions they lead?” Their answer, “Leaders have been slow to adapt to the requirements of a world in which top-down is no longer the best way to lead, or in many cases even a viable one.”[9] As complexity grows, the coordination challenge increases in accordance with Ashby’s law of requisite variety. At some point, mechanisms of coordination, like leadership, must radically change or be replaced. 

Since 1965, according to Deloitte’s John Hagel, the return-on-assets for all American firms has eroded by 75%. “The erosion has been sustained and significant. There is absolutely no evidence of it leveling off, and there is certainly no evidence of it turning around.”[10] So despite 40 years of training better leaders, corporate productivity continues to decline. This is a point underscored by another study,[11] in which the performance of companies run by award winning, “superstar CEOs” consistently underperformed in their markets after their CEO’s award. Hagel attributes this decline to the fact that America’s “leaders were essentially not prepared to move towards a more open and collaborative business model.”[12]

Cleveland once defined ‘leadership’ as “bringing people together to make something different happen.”[13] It is, in fact, a social mechanism to facilitate coordination and cooperation among diverse elements of a community. Those communities form in response to a belief that more value can be obtained by working together than can be gained by working separately. Leadership has been a central tool in effecting that cooperation.

Leaders don’t become leaders on their own. Leaders are created by followers[14] and they are chosen by their followers on the basis of:
a) their perceived ‘ethicalness’, that is, they are seen to operate for a collective good; and
b) their perceived ‘effectiveness’, that is, they can coordinate various community actors in a value-adding way to produce a net collective benefit.

A quick scan of the Harvard Business Review, however, yields over 50 variations in leadership style and the global leadership industry that has been spawned from them accounts for more than $50 billion annually.[15] When a term like leadership becomes so variously defined it can become meaningless. That said, the primary notion of leadership rests on the concept that leaders are always identified as being “in-charge.” Leaders always told followers what to do and followers, well, just followed. To wit, leadership has generally been expressed in terms of the leader as cause,[16] the great man theory,[17] the master chess player directing (or manipulating) a collective game in which others play the role of pawns, inconsequential tools to be used or discarded at the leader’s discretion. It’s the absence of this great causal leader that Coyne laments. In my opinion, this concept is at best highly patriarchal and, at worst, it has been responsible for some of the most unpleasant excesses in both organizations and human ‘civilization’.

Despite the immense sums being spent to improve leadership in every organization, there is no real evidence that it has made much of a difference. “We are no more capable today of making good leaders, or reducing the effects of bad leaders, than we were forty years ago,” says Kellerman.[18] “The leadership industry has not in any meaningful, measurable way improved the human condition … It’s a fraud.” 

Corporations and governments have become such large and complex entities that it is hard for any one person to direct or change them. “So why,” asks Justin Fox of Time Business, “do we [still] talk as if the CEOs are truly in charge.”[19] Economist Tim Harford observes, “I see the God complex around me all the time ... I see it in our business leaders. I see it in the politicians we vote for – people who, in the face of an incredibly complicated world, are nevertheless absolutely convinced that they understand the way that the world works.”[20] Says former Auditor General Denis Desautel, “Leadership has essentially become a game without a master.”[21] In a modern context, leadership is being regularly undermined by the complexity of problems that open it up to the self-serving interests of some leaders and make it an ineffective tool when employed by honest leaders. The result is growing perception among potential followers that leaders can be trusted.

Consequently, Hamel predicts [22] “the next revolution in corporate America won't be technological, it'll be social…The real problem we're up against, is not technology, it's the management DNA in companies .... When you concentrate the responsibility for innovation at the top, you're holding your capacity to change hostage. It disempowers people … Bureaucracy has to die." The same is true for public organizations.  If everything must funnel through the top leadership cadre, you are strangling the organization’s capacity to learn, innovate, and implement effective solutions.

Some in government would like to take solace in technology coming to our rescue. However, as Helbing reminds us[23], the processing power of technology continues to double every 1.8 years (according to Metcalfe’s Law), yet the amount of data is doubling every 1.2 years and the complexity of networked systems is growing even faster than that (see Figure 2 below). Consequently, any centralized, technology mediated solution for government is never going to be able to keep up. By the time any tech solution is installed, it’s already out of date. What’s needed are systems of self-organization, self-regulation, self-governance, collective learning and collaboration, in which citizens and stakeholders will participate and nudge issues forward, learning together as they go about identifying both their end goals and the means to get there. As Linus Torvalds, the originator of Linux, has said, “in the face of complexity you absolutely have to have an open and collaborative development process.”

Figure 2: ICT Factor Growth and Decision Making
The dynamic between leaders and followers requires that leaders be perceived to be ethical and effective by virtue of their having more power than their followers in terms of their knowledge, resources or authority. Otherwise why would anyone follow? However, today leaders do not have the knowledge, resources or power to be effective – even if many are ethical. So what hope have we? The recognition that leadership is not the only way of “bringing people together”. Effective collaboration can as well, even if it is antithetical to leadership. By collaborative I do not mean what passes today as ‘collaborative leadership’ or ‘facilitative leadership’ or ‘servant leadership’ or some other derivative of leadership. These expressions simply perpetuate the confusion that the coordinating behaviours required are little different from those applied to leader-follower relationships.

The collaborative dynamic is quite different – it is a dynamic among owners. Benefits are produced by the interaction of owners amongst themselves – not through the conduit of a leader. It is more of a peer-to-peer relationship than one of dependency. And, according to management icon Peter Senge, it “often comes down to how people move from fatalism to an awakened faith that they [themselves] can shape a different future.”[24]

So if leaders aren’t the answer, what is? Just as followers create leaders, owners create stewards. Stewards act for the benefit of owners. They may even be an owner themselves, but as stewards they act in ways to facilitate collective learning, decision making, action and trust. “I believe” says John Hagel, “that the opportunity for [stewardship] in this regard is to flip the natural psychological reaction that we have to uncertainty. All of us, when confronted with uncertainty, tend to magnify risk and discount reward, and that tends to lead us not to act but to stay on the sidelines, hoping that somehow, somewhere things will clarify and then we can move.”[25] The stewardship role, on the other hand, increases the collective sense of opportunity in a future that everyone is willing to live into, while diminishing the perceptions of individual risk associated with moving towards it via shared ownership, social learning and working together.

However, unlike leadership, good stewardship is primarily dependent on process design rather than personality traits. What I mean by this is that an assortment of mechanisms, heuristics and affordances, together with the development of good judgment and connoisseurship play a much more important role in stewardship than character or whim currently do with leaders and leadership. Accountability, which we have observed largely disintegrating under the general practice of leadership, becomes stronger and more transparent in stewardship regimes. Everybody can keep tabs on everybody else. Already there is growing evidence that the practice of stewardship is making inroads in public, private and civic organizations. Yet we do not have, as yet, an established theory of either stewardship or collaboration – at least not in the way we have for leadership and management. Much of what passes for collaboration remains rhetorical and fanciful.

That said, we need to break the stranglehold that leadership has on our organizations. We know that leadership is ill-suited to the modern challenges of distributed governance. We know that leaders and leadership are failing us. We know that leadership is counterproductive to much needed collaboration and partnership. We know that leaders can be lacking in either ethicalness or effectiveness or both. So why do we continue the pretense of following?

Stewardship is a promising alternative. It is not dependent on personality, nor are its cornerstones – ownership, diversity, inquiry and experimentation – really all that threatening. It is, however, unknown and as we all know uncertainty is not something that people like to embrace. Admittedly more needs to be done to explore both collaboration and stewardship, but isn’t a little uncertainty with respect to stewardship still better than the certainty of leadership failure?

Currently governments are “locked in a political paradigm that was designed for a very different world”, says Don Lenihan, “one defined by winner-take-all debates, simplistic policy solutions, a passive public, and ideologically-driven decision-making.”[26] Governments must either adapt or they risk spiralling into irrelevance.

Not surprisingly, “the latest management trend to sweep Silicon Valley”, according to Greg Ferenstein[27], “requires CEOs to formally relinquish their authority and grant special protection for every employee to experiment with ideas. It's called holacracy and big name tech leaders have jumped on the bandwagon.” Holacracy is a governance system where authority and decision-making are distributed throughout self-organizing teams rather than being centralized at the top of the organization. “Twitter co-founder Evan Williams adopted it for his new blogging platform startup, Medium. The movement started making headlines when Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh, announced that he will transition his entire Las Vegas company — with a billion dollars of revenue and 1,500 workers — to holacracy by the end of 2014.”

At the same time, the existence of a growing number of Internet tools and other social media technologies have begun to challenge the existing ‘power elites’ of government[28]. Internet leaders, such as Balaji Srinivasan, the co-founder of Counsyl, Inc. a Silicon Valley DNA testing corporation, recently suggested to a tech audience that those dissatisfied with the status quo are in effect seceding from the ‘paper belt’ of US power centres (Boston, New York, Washington and LA) through such innovations like MOOCs, Kickstarter, Uber, Bitcoin, YouTube, and Blogger. “It’s no longer clear,” says Srinivasan, “that [government] can ban something it wants to ban anymore.” Without that coercive power and with value generation shifting online, the voices of the established powers are becoming less credible and the legitimacy of centralized government is increasingly being called into question.

Srinivasan says the movement to virtual business or political worlds is in part a protest move, one that supports the voices of the many who see the need for change, but who can be effectively ignored by those in leadership positions who continue to profit from the status quo. “We want to show what a society run by [technology] would look like, without affecting anyone who still believes the ‘paper belt’ is actually good. That means building an opt-in society run by technology”. In effect, he’s describing the creation of a “proof of concept” for an online society that can operate separate from but in parallel to the existing one. No one person is directing it and it is developing on the basis of many individual efforts. It is not being led by anyone but it is emerging nonetheless.

Instead of asking, “where have all the good leaders gone”, as Coyne has done, better, more important questions are how ‘we’, not ‘they’, will contribute to creating a future that we all want, and by what means will we steward it into reality?

[1] THE GANDALPH GROUP, Public Perceptions of the Ethics of Political Leadership, Toronto, 5 November 2014
[2] The Twilight of the Elites,” Time,
[3] ___. 2009. “MPs’ expenses: Full list of MPs investigated by The Telegraph,” The Telegraph, May 8 [accessed at:].
[4] LENIHAN, Don and Graham Fox. 2012. “Federalism upside down: Who speaks for Canada now?”  iPolitics, August 7 [accessed at:].
[5] WOUTERS, Wayne 2011. Speech to the Institute of Public Administration of Canada, Victoria, BC, August 29.
[6] YIP, Jeffrey Chris Ernst, and Michael Campbell. Boundary Spanning Leadership: Mission Critical Perspectives from the Executive Suite, Center for Creative Leadership, 2011
[7] O’LEARY, Rosemary  and Nidhi Vij. 2012. “Collaborative Public Management: Where Have We Been and Where Are We Going?” The American Review of Public Administration,  vol. 42, May 16, p. 507-522.
[8] BARTON, Dominic; Andrew Grant and Michelle Horn. 2012. “Leading in the 21st century,” McKinsey Quarterly, June [accessed at].
[9] M.B. 2013., “Leaders without followers,” The Economist,  January 21[accessed at:].
[10] HAGEL John. 2010. Quoted in “Running Faster, Falling Behind: John Hagel III on How American Business Can Catch Up,”  Knowledge@Wharton, June 23 [accessed at: article.cfm?articleid=2523].
[11] MALMENDIER, Ulrike and Geoffrey A. Tate. 2005. Superstar CEOs. 7th Annual Texas Finance Festival Paper. February 2.
[12] HAGEL, John, 2010, op.cit.
[13] CLEVELAND, Harlan. 2002. Nobody in Charge.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, p. xv.
[14] BLOCK, Peter. 1998. “As Goes the Follower; So Goes the Leader,” AQP News for a Change, American Society for Quality, 2(7): 11-13.
[15] KELLERMAN, Barabara. 2012. The End of Leadership. New York, NY: HarperCollins, p. 154.
[16] BLOCK, Peter. 2008. Community: The Structure of Belonging, San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, p. 41.
[17] BASS, B. M.. 1990. Bass and Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership: A survey of theory and research. New York, NY: Free Press; JAGO,.A.G. 1982.  “Leadership: Perspectives in theory and research,” Management Science, 28(3): 315-336.
[18] KELLERMAN, Barabara. 2012, op.cit., p. xiv.
[19] FOX, Justin. 2006. “The Limited (but real) Impact of CEOs,” Time Magazine, October 20 [accessed at:].
[20] HARFORD. Tim. 2011. Trial, Error and the God Complex, TED Global, July [accessed at:].
[21] PAQUET, Gilles. 2001.  “Leadership In Turbulent Times: An Interview With Denis Desautels”,, 31(2): 2-7.
[22] Quoted in MEARIAN, Lucas “The next corporate revolution will be power to the peons”, Computerworld, 4 June 2013
[23] HELBING, Dirk. The World After Big Data: What The Digital Revolution Means For Us, FuturICT,20 May 2014, Accessed at:
[24] SENGE, Peter et. al. 2008. The Necessary Revolution, Toronto, ON: Doubleday, p. 369.
[25] HAGEL, John 2010, op.cit.
[26] LENIHAN, Don. “Volatile voters, wicked issues — and a whole new era in politics”, iPolitics, 2 April 2013. Accessed at:
[27] FERENSTEIN, Gregory. “Zappos just abolished bosses. Inside tech's latest management craze”, Vox, 11 July 2014. Accessed at:
[28] Silicon Valley dreams of secession”, Salon, Oct 28, 2013 accessed at: