The Pathology of Leadership

How a toxic professional class deadens the world

By John Higgins and Mark Cole

There’s a moral void at the heart of the current practice of leadership. It has become a technocratic exercise which takes for granted any number of assumptions, treating as organisational truths and necessities ways of seeing the world that are actively harmful for people and the biosphere.

Leadership has, in keeping with all groupings that aspire to be seen as “professional”, become self-referencing – delighting in its own reflection and applauding its members for their deserving right to outsized privileges. Around this cult are its high priests and acolytes, all with a vested interest in preserving the majesty and mystique of this superhuman class – without whom all human endeavour would surely fail. Or would it?

How the cult of leadership rots organisational life

In a recent conversation with a Doctoral supervisor at a world-renowned institution, John was asked to help the supervisor think through how they could achieve what John could plainly see was an impossible task.

To maximise income, overseas student numbers had been doubled in a year and many of the academic and language entry requirements reduced. The supervisor, who’d had no say in these decisions, was trying to ‘think outside the box’ (as the organisation’s professional leadership put it) to find ways to deliver the same quality of academic supervision and Doctoral outputs as before. With no additional resources.

This was a not uncommon example of management thinking imposing its aphorisms and will on areas of life over which it has unilaterally declared itself to have dominion – a piece of professional colonialism, with the academic experts reduced to a colonised underclass in the service of their colonising masters.

A recent research study into changes in the workforce in the higher education sector noted the way in which universities had expanded to meet the burgeoning market for credentialized educational opportunities. The report identified two crucial shifts: a drastic increase in non-academic staff, particularly those working as “managers”, with a strong emphasis on student experience; and, second, the shift away from traditional academic posts that combine scholarship and teaching to appointments solely focused on delivering classes.

Another instance of the management/leadership class extending its remit deep into the day-to-day workings of people’s practice can be seen in how the discipline of clinical supervision has been turned into another facet of the managerial disciplinary machinery. Conversations which are meant to be about the development of personal and professional practice have been supplanted by conversations about compliance with a managerially approved agenda for development, with everything seen through the imposed lens of KPIs and immediate, measurable action.

Mark recalls being appointed to a role in a mental health trust where he was told the first order of business was to revisit the supervision policies. What was wanted from a senior leadership perspective was one combined approach that folded managerial oversight into the clinical supervision arrangements. Once the later had unwittingly been forced to absorb former, it was apparent that, just as we see when parasitoid wasps sting a host so as to lay their eggs inside it, clinical supervision was soon overwhelmed by management and its crude expectations.

To become a member of the leadership club of the world’s great organisations and institutions has become an accelerating case of conceptual hoop jumping and badge chasing, with everything done at pace and with an uncritical embrace of the established curriculum. The days when Charles Handy gave out Greek Tragedy to go alongside the Accounting Manuals when teaching Finance at LBS are long gone.

Leadership is now a game with fixed rules, with the winner taking all. Increasingly, it looks to owe more to social-biology than sociology. It is writ through with crude competitiveness, regardless of the messages of collaboration that exist in our organisations. If this rings true it raises the  question of whether the current investment in diversity can be taken at all seriously in corporate environments that are actually all about “dog eat dog”. Indeed, this might be why senior leaders are content to sponsor numerous targeted leadership development initiatives – as if it was still all about helping participants to address a deficit – but show no real appetite for a shift and change in the way in which they practise their leadership. We might be invited into the room – but we’re denied the chance to redesign the room to better reflect the needs of the organisation, let alone question whether leadership should take place there at all.

The reality of living with potentially unbearable judgements and moral compromises gets lost, hidden by a plethora of pre-thought targets and ‘incentive’ programmes (because the sizable pay packet is never enough to get the members of the leadership club out of bed in the morning). Leadership as a burden is lost because it is now simply another game to win on every rising star’s path to… to what? A dusty death?

Ever since Milton Friedman freed corporate executives from the complexity of ethical choice little has been done to build up the leadership club’s capacity for exercising ethical judgement – reduced these days to little more than a legal process to be navigated, a claim or two on the website and a series of platitudinous, generic statements of humanistic niceness… often at odds with the messy realities of engaging with a world of widespread human rights abuses, and general ethical nastiness, throughout the global supply chain.

The predominance of the quantitative – the assumed facticity of numbers – ideologically effaces the sense that leaders should navigate our complex world with their own ethical compass firmly in hand. Instead, moral cardinal points are subsumed by decimal points, with the numbers dictating action rather than human agency.

Within the public sector, the introduction of amoral private sector leadership orthodoxy has been swallowed wholesale – with the great god of efficiency (as judged by the executive and commissioning classes) bashing out a workplace rhythm incapable of acknowledging its negative consequences. New Public Management imports the excesses of private sector practice and reduces everything to individual competition and the unthinking worship of what gets classified as data.

Leadership as an ethical discipline

In John’s recent research with Megan Reitz into workplace activism, what stands out for him is how ill-equipped organisational leaders are for dealing with the complexities of a world that increasingly expects them to have some capacity for deep thinking, for seeing the world in ways that cannot be subsumed within a simplistic, mechanistic economic orthodoxy, focused on something called ‘growth’, budgetary discipline and the productive use of capital.

A world of incommensurability, of things that can’t be reduced to a common comparator, is novel for leaders who have been schooled by the world’s leading business schools and consultancies. These temples of orthodoxy show how to succeed without reference to a moral compass – individual competitiveness is a universal and absolute good. Winning is all. And the ethics of sharp-practice professional sport is the held up as the exemplar of virtue.

What is to be done?

This is not a plea for the emergence of a new master race of impeccable moral philosophers. We’ve always preferred to work with the notion that we are all built of crooked timber and that wishing we were other than this leads you into all sort of ‘Year Zero’, absolutist nasties.

The first step we think to take on addressing the pathology of current leadership practice, is to acknowledge this crooked reality and to call out as unhelpful the idealisation, worship and super-hero-ing of those who occupy the high ground of formal organisational leadership.

A second step is then to try and shift the popular narrative around leadership both within the workplace and in wider society – to look at it critically, see it for the self-serving club it’s become and how the process for joining the club undermines people’s capacity for exercising moral judgement and living with moral tensions and ambiguities.

And a third step is for each of us to own our responsibility for sustaining this toxic pathology, with our habits of looking for answers from on-high and deny our active participation in creating and sustaining the pathology of leadership.

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