Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Note on Pseudo-Leadership

As a part of my work on the Leadership Programme, I came to realize that one of the more important aspects that one needs to understand about leadership is what leadership is not. I have been reading Warren Bennis and his warnings about Pseudo-leadership is very real: I do think the world is full of pseudo-leaders and the big problems we face comes from the failure to call the wheat from chaff a lot of times.

To start with, take the distinction, following Max Weber, between Power and Authority. Weber argued that POWER is about the ability to force people to obey, whereas the AUTHORITY is when one is obeyed without having to resort to force. In real life, however, this distinction gets blurred and too many people confuse the two. This happens on both sides of the table, incidentally; those who obey sometimes mistake the power - the senior person's ability to fire or punish the junior person - as some sort of automatic authority, and those who are in the driver's seat sometime expect obedience as a given, and behave accordingly.

I think a good understanding of pseudo-leadership can be achieved by reading Bob Woodward's Bush quartet. George W Bush will rank as one of the worst presidents America had ever had. Actually, may be, the worst - given the unmitigated disaster he has been in terms of America's standing in the world, in domestic policy and in terms of the management of the two wars he initiated. His fellow-rankholders, Calvin Coolidge, Richard Nixon and possibly Warren Harding, all had skeletons in their own cupboards and failed the American public in their own ways. However, the question that must be asked is how these men, and particularly George W, who lived and ruled in the era of Internet, interactive media and intense public scrutiny, could mis-lead so many people for so long. I have no particular love for John Kerry and his leadership qualities, but it is indeed surprising that George W managed to win a second term when his leadership traits were already becoming clear. Reading through Woodward's account of the conduct of the war on terror, one gets a front row seat in this drama of paralysed leadership, where strategic thinking was given up in favour of street smart wisdom, and statesmanship was sacrificed in the alter of internecine politics of a dysfunctional White House.

All of this, because George W had the power - as the President of the United States - and that gave him an automatic authority and claim on loyalties of a lot of very smart men and women. But, the obvious consequence of this has made the world a lot worse place to live - something that pseudo-leaders end up doing for themselves and for others.

If for GWB, it was the position, for Warren Harding, it was his looks. He looked presidential and that's why he got elected. Again, human superficiality was at play and ended up in disaster. We tend to make an automatic concession for the physical beauty, but one must remember that this is not an yardstick of leadership. In fact, when we take 'physical presence' into consideration, we are wrong more often than not, and let pseudo leaders fool us.

I think the essential point about leadership - to use C K Prahalad's term - is to be a good sheepdog. It is not about being in the front or being seen in the front, but standing back and leading the herd through thick and thin. The visual image of leadership, however, is of the front runner, someone charging up without much thought or consideration about what others are doing. And, I think this visual image of leadership, and lot of the associated literature and philosophy, lead us to get it wrong, and err on the side of pseudo-leadership. It is therefore extremely important for a student to study the pseudo-leaders when studying about leadership, and understand, as I mentioned before, what leadership is not.

So, pardon me if I add Mussolini and Hitler on the curriculum of the leadership class. My heart is still pure.

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