For decades, companies and organizations have invested vast sums of money on what they call leadership development. In the US alone, it’s estimated that companies spend somewhere between 14 to 170 billion dollars on it annually. Add to that the global market, including revenues from books, membership fees, leadership fairs and university studies etc., and it becomes apparent that “leadership” has become a massive industry.
Despite the magnitude of this industry, few people ever question its impact on companies and societies. For many, leadership is unquestionably the main key to success. To them it almost seems absurd to think otherwise. Perhaps this is why only 10-20% of all companies investing in leadership will actually evaluate the outcome of their investments. Now, how many other investments are companies willing to do without evaluating the result of their investments?
The idea that leaders are important may seem logical - but there are many reasons why we should critically examine the leadership industry.
First of all, what many don’t know is that very little scientific research has been done on the actual importance of leaders. In fact, scientists can’t even agree on what differentiates a leader from a non-leader. In other words, there is no objective "truth" as to what a leader is.
Secondly, it’s highly questionable what the results have been from the massive investments made in leadership. For example, in a survey of 230,000 employees in 142 countries, the public opinion research company – Gallup – found that only 13% of all employees feel engaged at work. And Edelman, one of the world's largest public relations firms, concluded in a survey of 33,000 people in 27 countries, that global trust in government and political leaders “leaders” is as low as 15-25 %. In the US, the Americans trust in their government have actually dropped steadily from about 70% in the mid 1970’s to about 20% in 2010.
Considering the vast investments in leadership, shouldn’t we have been able to see a much more convincing result?
A third reason why we should question the leadership industry is the effect it has on collaboration. While leaders are seen as omnipotent, those who follow leaders - the “followers”, are more or less seen as unimportant. Just as regards the views on leadership, but at the opposite end, this view is held without any substantial evidence. For many a follower is the same as a servant, someone who obeys a leader's wishes or demands. As a consequence, few want to see themselves as followers.
This negative view of followers appear to increases the risk of conflict between individuals in a team. Why? Because people hate to be dominated and therefore do their best to avoid it.
This dislike of being dominated is deeply rooted in us as human beings. Modern Man originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago. During the first 180,000 years, our ancestors lived in small band societies with no more than 20 to 40 individuals. These were egalitarian societies without any rulers or authorities. Dominance was just not accepted here. Instead, cooperation was seen as the key to success.
Our unwillingness to let ourselves be dominated by others sharply contrasts with today's leadership philosophy. Despite the billions of dollars that companies spend on leadership development, the amazing results promised by the leadership industry is still to be seen. Thus, the leadership industry is based on the assumption that leaders are important, not facts.
With all this uncertainty surrounding leadership, why is it so controversial to question the importance of leaders? Why are companies investing billions of dollars in leadership programs without asking whether it produces any results? And why do we continue to belittle followers when we know so little about them?
There is so much potential out there that is lost because we’re too focused on leaders. It’s time to question the old leadership myth and the industry that surround it. It’s time to move on!