The Trouble with Leadership Theories

Harvard Business Review

Several years ago a client of mine, Rob, fell in love with Jim Collins’s book Good to Great. Within a month he had given copies to everyone on his team.  Soon after, language from the book made its way into Rob’s everyday speech.

One idea he especially loved was Level-5 leadership. “If we want to be great,” Rob would say, “we need more Level-5 leadership.”

I quickly grew tired of hearing him say it. His references to it were too vague and preachy. I could tell that his team was growing tired of it too.

Eventually, I asked Rob what Level-5 leadership meant to him. And more importantly, what it looked like in his organization. Not in a sound bite, but in his own words.

His answer:

We need a vision of this company for the next 10 years. We’ve spent too much time resting on our successes from the past 10. Either we come together as a team to figure it out or we’re going to drift into oblivion.

We have to be focused on building something bigger than our own bank accounts. We’ve lost sight of a broader purpose.

Our success has to start with our people. We have to inspire them to want to build something great alongside us. We have to be crystal clear about what the vision looks like in action. Then we have to walk the talk ourselves.

Rob’s answer wasn’t really what Collins meant by Level-5 leadership. Yet it was powerful in its own right. I could understand where Rob stood and what he believed. The power, of course, didn’t come from just his words; it came from his strong connection to them. That connection was missing when he tried to use Level-5 leadership as shorthand for his own thinking.

To be clear, Good to Great is filled with excellent research and insights. And leadership theory has its place. Theories pull disparate ideas and data into working models, distinguishing concepts and providing a systemic perspective.

But the trouble with leadership theories is they’re easy to hide behind (often inaccurately). They become proxies for actual leadership. When something important is on the line, people don’t follow five-tiered triangles, four-box matrices, or three concentric circles. They follow real people.

I advise clients to capture theories of leadership in their own words. Merge book smarts with street smarts. Avoid using jargon and vague concepts.  Make it visceral and real. Keep it brief; write it on a single sheet of paper.

A year ago, a client asked to see my one-sheet theory of leadership. I hadn’t done the exercise in a decade. That night I revisited my theory and rewrote it.  In fifteen minutes and six brief lines I captured my current thinking about great leadership, exactly as it came to me.  Here’s what came out:

I believe:

There’s too much noise in business today.  There are too many things vying for our attention.  Senior leaders must be diligent about cutting out the noise to get their organizations focused on what really matters.

Playing it safe is dangerous.  You never maintain the status quo by playing it safe.  You get worse.  You lose your edge.  You lose your confidence.  You don’t feel alive. You can’t win. 

Mediocrity is cancerous.  Once you begin to accept mediocrity, it sends signals that it’s acceptable.  Before long everyone and everything around you is mediocre.

Unless you’re relentlessly open and honest in your communication—constantly—things fall apart.  I believe that close to 100% of all business problems can be traced back to poor communication at some point.

People want to do great things.  They want to build great things.  They want to be involved with other great people.  Great leaders create the conditions for other people’s greatness to come out.

You need to hold people’s feet to the fire.  Do it with compassion.  Do it with love.  Do it with respect.  But don’t let people off the hook.  This is where mediocrity starts.

I was surprised at how good it felt to write these statements. It felt better than I remember from my previous versions. When I shared the statements with clients, there was strong resonance. Two people actually posted them at their desk. I wondered why; after all, the content wasn’t topically new.

A colleague shared her take. “The statements are powerful because they’re not polished. They’re just what you believe. You’re not trying to encapsulate hundreds of data points into a grand, catchy theory. You’re not trying to be politically correct and perfect.”

I think she’s right. People are tired of the leadership buzzwords and models that feel too tidy, analytical, and removed. A client recently told me his executives are suffering from “framework fatigue.” I understand; I think we all are. The language of leadership has become so cookie-cutter and cliché that we filter it out.

Of course, the act of great leadership is never cliché. It’s an art. It should be informed by smart research, yet it should be shaped by on-the-ground experience. Both are critical.  By all means read the theories, attend seminars, and talk to luminaries. They provide a solid foundation. But then ask yourself, what do I believe makes a great leader?  Trust your gut and experience. Don’t worry about making it perfect. Worry about making it a reflection of what you truly have found to work. Your theory might not have all the spit and polish of formal leadership theories, but it just might be what takes you and your organization from good to great.

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