For the past 15 years I’ve been a client for leadership development work both on my own behalf and on behalf of organizations I’ve led. I’ve used the industry a lot, and gotten tons of value out of it. That said, the world of work has been changing pretty dramatically, and I can’t honestly say I feel like leadership development is keeping pace.
When I first started getting leadership training, way back years ago, here are some of the messages I was given:
The boss should talk less and listen more. Bosses should practice empathy, and learn how to give calm, clear, actionable feedback rather than yelling or being punitive.
Not everything can be reduced to numbers and deliverables and milestones and targets: the human side matters too.
Bosses should practice some degree of self-disclosure and let themselves be vulnerable: that builds trust and healthy working relationships.
People should be encouraged to admit mistakes, to change their minds, and to constantly iterate towards better.
Bosses shouldn’t pretend to have all the answers: they should be receptive and open to the ideas of others regardless of their position in the formal hierarchy.
Transparency is generally good. If people don’t know what you’re thinking, they make up stuff that’s way worse than reality.
Those are good messages. They helped me think in a more explicit way about the practice of leadership, and gave me permission to be the kind of boss I’d like to think I’d have been anyway. But once you poke at them a little, it’s clear they’re built on weird assumptions.
I was a journalist in broadcast media, a totally non-command-and-control industry. I’d never even had a command-and-control boss. Roughly 50% of the people in senior roles in my organization were women, and women bosses are widely understood to be more inclusive and communicative than male ones. My then-organization was 85% unionized and the unions were pretty strong: when management wanted to exert its will, our most useful tools were influence and persuasion.
So why were our coaches and trainers putting so much energy into guiding us away from being autocratic jerks?
Eventually I concluded that the leadership development industry, built as it is on decades of studies and analysis and practice, probably generally has a bias to lag behind reality — meaning, it’s shaped not so much by what’s actually happening now, or might happen tomorrow, but by past experience. And therefore it implicitly, reflexively, assumes an old-school boss: a guy, maybe in his fifties, who’s smoking a cigar and barking out orders.
The trouble is that while that may have been the typical boss 50 years ago, with each passing day it’s less and less our reality. We just don’t work in command-and-control environments as much as we used to. And to the extent that leadership development is designed to fix the problems of autocratic jerks, it is limiting its ability to be useful for everybody else.
I live and work in the Bay Area, in media and tech. Everybody I know is experimenting with organizational design and leadership style, whether they’d say it explicitly or not. People are trying to figure out how flat their orgs can reasonably be, how to devolve power, how to maximize cohesion and buy-in and organizational agility. Gruff Shouty Boss is just not our failure mode.
Here’s the kind of thing people I know talk about.
- How to, in decision-making, balance inclusivity against efficiency and speed.
- How to balance an individual contributor’s sense of personal agency against the organization’s need for everyone to row (or bail) the boat together.
- How to maintain leadership accountability while fostering broad ownership and responsibility throughout the organization.
- How to have leadership be accessible to all levels of the organization, without drowning the execs or undermining middle management.
- How to create a strong, shared work culture without accidentally turning into a monoculture that doesn’t tolerate people who don’t fit.
- How to, in organizations that over-value harmony, ensure disagreements are openly expressed and worked through.
- How to create an environment that enables the effectiveness of creative, talented people who have depression, ADD/ADHD and/or Asperger’s.
- How to equip leaders from underrepresented groups to manage their imposter syndrome and to successfully handle subtle biases among their co-workers.
- How to lead in a period of experimentation, when the boss can’t pretend to have all the answers.
These are the kinds of questions that leaders in the tech sector are facing today and, as software eats the world, they’ll increasingly be faced by leaders in every sector.
There are people working on figuring out this stuff — for example, I like Michael Lopp and Venkatesh Rao and Joel Spolsky, and I think boot camps and foo-type camps are useful too. But I feel like, in focusing on fixing the mistakes of the past, the LD/OD industry itself is erasing, rather than helping shape and define, new and emergent forms of leadership. That’s a huge missed opportunity.