Just don’t call it “Leadership”


“From the moment of this realization, we no longer saw our task as producing a documented view of the future business environment five or ten years ahead. Our real target was the microcosms of our decision makers: unless we influenced the mental image, the picture of reality held by critical decision makers, our scenarios would be like water on a stone” — Pierre Wack

This post is part book-review and part deeper semantic reflection.

“Never judge a book by its cover” is probably one of the corniest proverbs out there, but it seemed deeply appropriate to bring it up in the context of this book, since it made too much sense on too many meta levels:

Mastering Leadership: an integrated framework for breakthrough performance and extraordinary business results — by Robert J. Anderson and William A. Adams

My initial instinct, based on the-over-the-top language in the title, was to add this book to my “worst kind of self-help books” list and go read a different book instead. I’m glad that I gave it the benefit of the doubt and decided to read it, as it clearly makes it into my “Top 3 things I’ve read this year” list instead. As a side note, this is the second time that this is happening to me. The first time was a few years back with “I will teach you how to be rich” which I still believe is one of the better Personal Finance books out there.

Recently I’ve been on a journey, exploring various aspects of vertical development and Mastering Leadership enabled me to take a big step forward in my understanding of this domain, and get a much more tangible sense of what vertical development looks like, how it can be evaluated, and what the key drivers that enables it are.

The contrarian perspective in the book argues that most leaders (and leadership programs) fail to live up to their full potential because they are fully focused on improving the outer game, ignoring the fact that without a material investment on the inner game, any improvements to the outer game will be unsustainable. The inner game drives the outer game.

Source: Mastering Leadership

In the rest of the book, they gradually build their “Universal Model of Leadership” — a deep synthesis of the field of leadership in the last century, which is heavily influences by Kegan’s work on adult development stages, which I’ve covered in previous posts.

The focus is on the middle three levels which they label: Reactive, Creative and Integral.

Source: Mastering Leadership

This is where things start to get really interesting: the authors are able to articulate the differences between the levels using a framework which describes the interplay between different attributes at each level, called the Leadership Circle Profile (LCP). You can explore it in greater detail here.

Source: Mastering Leadership

The LCP can be used as an assessment tool for both individuals and groups as well as a tool for charting the path for individual and group development.

Another notable aspect of the book is the genuine effort by the authors to keep the level of scientific rigor high, despite the “softness” of the overall topic. This goes well beyond doing a good job citing their sources, and actually establishing a material statistically significant link between leadership effectiveness and business performance and between LCP competencies and leadership effectiveness. Certainly a refreshing approach in a domain that’s mired with really cool-looking frameworks without any data to back them up.

Source: Mastering Leadership

I will not go any deeper in explaining the framework as I will not do it justice, but hopefully I’ve shared enough to pique your interest to go and read the book, despite its title.

My only issue with the book is semantic, but not inconsequential. It goes beyond the use of somewhat hyperbolic language and the introduction of some unnecessary jargon, which I’m more than happy to overlook (and you should too). The material issue here is the decision to frame the developmental journey that’s laid out in the book as “leadership”. Which brings us to the second part of this post.

It is a shift in context, expressed through a shift in language, that creates the conditions where traditional forms of action can create an alternative future” — Peter Block

In our domain, there’s an overall positive trend of trying to move away from words containing deep notions of power and control like “supervisor”, “manager” or “boss” to words that are a bit more power-neutral, like “coach” and “leader”, in describing the roles and behaviors of individuals who are part of the organization. While the role definitions themselves are a topic for a different post, all I’m trying to argue here is that “leadership” is still the wrong label to use. In trying to better articulate my issue with it, I came across a piece by Mark Gerzon on “Leaders and Leadership” which contained this bit:

The English word “leadership” originates in the ancient root leith, which meant “to go forth and die,” as in battle. By this definition, those who lead Group A to commit violence against Group B are “leaders.”

“Leadership” seems to be going through semantic diffusion. Even if we strip away the violent aspect of the original term, at its core leadership is defined by the interaction between the individual and the group: unless the group’s behavior is influenced by the individual (follows the leader into battle), the person cannot be considered a leader. To remove this component of the definition is to turn leadership into a term that can mean anything and everything. The term “leadership” is therefore, to use the “Mastering Leadership” terminology, a term that’s consistent with a Reactive mind and an outside-in identity. The development path described in the book is trying to move away from an outside-in identity, thus using “leadership” to describe it seems odd to me. It is much more of a path towards self-actualization or deep citizenry than towards leadership. We need a better term to describe the individual transformation that one must undergo in order to be able to participate in more advanced forms of human collaboration effectively. Suggestions are most welcomed.