Behind-the-Page Interview With Barbara Kellerman
Read "Introduction: Learning Leading—Lame Undertaking" (ILA Members only through 31 Oct.)
Barbara Kellerman is the James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is the Founding Executive Director of the School’s Center for Public Leadership. Kellerman was honored with ILA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016. She is author and editor of many books including The End of Leadership (2012) and Hard Times: Leadership in America (2014). Ranked for the past four years by Global Gurus as among the top 20 “World’s Top 30 Management Professionals,” Kellerman has appeared often on media outlets such as CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN, NPR, MSNBC, and BBC, and has contributed articles and reviews to the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and the Harvard Business Review. Her most recent book, Professionalizing Leadership, was published in March 2018 by Oxford University Press. She blogs regularly at barbarakellerman.com.
Dennis C. Roberts (Denny) is an author, speaker, and consultant. He last served as Assistant Vice President of Education for Qatar Foundation. Prior to working abroad, he was Associate Vice President of Student Affairs at Miami University. He has been a member of the International Leadership Association from its founding and is a former President of the American College Personnel Association. He is the author of five books and a variety of book chapters and journal articles. His first book, Student Leadership Programs in Higher Education (1981), proposed a model for comprehensive extracurricular and cocurricular student leadership learning.
Dennis (Denny) Roberts: I’m here with Barbara Kellerman to talk about her new book Professionalizing Leadership. To preface this entire conversation, I have to thank you for the courageous role that you've taken on in leadership studies — particularly recently with your book The End of Leadership and now with Professionalizing Leadership. You're pushing all of us in the leadership industry to do the best job we can possibly do. It's a role that probably isn't all that easy to do, but you're deeply appreciated by many of us who want to do a better job and you're raising questions that we certainly need to address.
Barbara Kellerman: Thanks Denny. I suspect I'm appreciated by a few, but I'm not sure I’m appreciated by the many! [Laughter] In any case, I appreciate the comment.
Denny: One of the things that I was fascinated by in your book was the idea of context. It’s something you return to throughout the entire book. So, as we start our conversation I’d like to ask the following. Writing a book that kind of pushes other people — and may even have a tendency to offend a few — isn't exactly something that most people are willing to dive in to. I'm curious to hear about the context that drew you to take this on and push us as a field. What is it that's causing you to feel so deeply that this message needs to get out there?
Barbara: There are two things that come to mind, Denny. I've written many books and articles over my career on leadership and followership and related subjects, but until very recently they were in leadership studies as opposed to leadership development. I never paid much attention to how people were teaching leadership. Indeed, I told my own students and other various audiences that if they were interested in learning how to lead, they were in the wrong room. On the other hand, if they were interested in learning something about leadership, then they were, arguably, in the right room. For most of my professional life, I have shied away from the question or the issue of how to teach how to lead. As you intimate, I became somewhat interested in recent years and certainly did a little bit more than touch on the subject in the End of Leadership — although that book was not essentially about how to teach how to lead.
I will say that in the years subsequent, that is in the last five years or so, I became increasingly aware not only of my own context, but the multiple contexts within which people claimed they were teaching how to lead. And I was struck by how quickly and easily we seem to conclude that we're doing what we say. In other words, the message, by and large, that the leadership industry sends is, “Take my course, or come to my workshop, or take my executive program” — I might add often for a lot of money — “and you, too, can learn to be a leader.” Other professions take the task of learning or mastering a field, and then a particular set of skills, much more seriously. And they do so much more thoroughly. So, I became extremely aware of how we were, with relative ease, sending the message that this too can be done in short order.
Prior to that, I started to become aware of how leadership was taught in the past, including in the very distant past. Some of the greats, for example, Confucius or Lao Tzu or Plato, did just the opposite. They assumed that learning to lead took a lifetime and they undertook it with the utmost seriousness. This is particularly striking in contrast to the way we've been doing it during the approximately 40 years that the leadership industry has been around. So, I would say, both through my own experience and through some of the learnings that I myself did about how leadership used to be taught in times long ago, that dissonance struck me as worthy of close attention.
Denny: That's such a fascinating story. To go back historically to see how the Socratic method and allegory were used in terms of understanding the complexity of leadership. It seems like we just became overly ambitious. We wanted to have a shortcut to help people learn how to do a better job in leadership. But that shortcut appears to have missed the deeper substance of the field itself. Is that the bottom line?
Barbara: Well, it's certainly the bottom line as far as I'm concerned. I hasten to add — and I, of course, write this in Professionalizing Leadership — there is one contemporary American institution that seems to me to teach leadership remarkably well — certainly, given the contrast with the civilian sector — and that’s the military. The contemporary military does an unbelievably thorough, and careful, and even intellectually rigorous job of teaching how to lead, whether it's the service academies or even noncommissioned officers. They get taught in a way that the rest of us do not.
To quickly piggyback on that point — and I write this in the book and I know it does not endear me to my colleagues — I do think the speed with which we profess to teach how to lead has something to do with money. I call it the leadership industry for a reason — because it's a moneymaking business. The more quickly we say we can teach how to lead, the more money there is to be earned. I think it's also part of the larger American culture. We're a how-to culture. We’re a quick fix culture. Americans don't generally have a huge amount of patience for things. So, the message we generally send is, “You too can learn how to lead, and lead in short order.”
Denny: Right. And we're sloppy about the, quote, credential, if there is such a thing. You can get your stamp from any variety of different institutions, and universities, and organizations. And there is no way, as you very aptly criticize, to compare across the providers with regard to the outcome. Whether it’s individuals or organizations, people invest large sums of money in these programs and we don’t know what difference a particular leadership education or development experience has made compared to another.
Barbara: There is a lot of money invested and a lot of time by a lot of people. And yes, you're absolutely right. It's not as if the, about, 40-year-old leadership industry has an awful lot to be proud of. By almost every measure, Americans — and I’m confining this conversation to the United States of America, but the point could easily be made to apply to other countries — denigrate and despise leaders in ways they simply did not a couple of generations ago. This is almost without exception, across the board. So, according to that broad measure, the leadership industry has not done brilliantly.
And you're quite right, of course, Denny, that one of the reasons it has not is because we have not got our act together to certify accomplishment in any way that people widely accept. This is in stark contrast not only to learning other professions, but to learning vocations. Nobody in this country can call him or herself a plumber or an electrician or a hairdresser or a tow truck driver and have a credential that is, as you point out, completely idiosyncratic. We've done really a bad job. And by we, I include academia. Programs in the academies are each, idiosyncratically, deciding for themselves what counts as good enough. There’s no collaboration and no connection, not only among different academies, but even within a single academy.
Denny: Right. I was so stimulated by reading your book that I decided I was going to do my own experiment. I have a very close friend in his mid to late thirties who is a graduate of one of the military academies you profile, and who is now pursuing an MBA program at a very reputable institution, whose name I won’t mention.
Barbara: [Chuckle] Right!
Denny: We had coffee and I said, “You know, I'm really curious. I've read this book and it lauds the military for what they're doing in terms of sustained, deep leadership development. Is this for real? What’s your experience?” And, to my utter astonishment, he said, “Absolutely.” Then, he was fairly critical of the MBA program that he's presently in, in terms of the lack of rigor about what leadership is, the lack of coherence in terms of the way that courses unfold, experiences are offered, et cetera. In my small, n=1 experiment, he very strongly confirmed your proposition.
But, he also said one thing that makes me wonder about whether the military can actually be used as a model for other programs. His point was, “Look, when I was in training, we knew the end result was saving lives. There was no room for sloppiness. There was no room for a lack of focused intent. We were dead serious.” That seems to be something that may be unique to the military and so I’m wondering if we apply leadership training models in the military to other sectors, can that sense of urgency and importance be translated for nonprofits, for profits, for education, and all sorts of other kinds of organizations. How do you see that working?
Barbara: Well, I think your friend is probably right. That's where it historically comes from and it’s why the military originally took leadership much more seriously than those of us in the civilian sector ever learned how to do. The military is the starkest example, obviously, of leadership saving lives. But, in a broader sense, while most leaders don't literally save lives, they can certainly improve lives. And, in some cases, they can even save them. Think about Volkswagen. If you're the head of Volkswagen and you got into the business of having your company cheat on emission standards, you may not be killing people instantly, but your actions are certainly detrimental to people’s health and welfare and may, literally, in the long run kill them.
Whether you're the head of a cigarette company or the president of the United States or the mayor of New York City, you have people’s lives in your hands. Again, not as starkly as in the military, but leadership is all about gravitas and seriousness of responsibility. If you're not literally saving lives, surely you, as a leader, are in the business of improving people's lives. Hopefully. From that angle, I'm not sure the divide is as stark as it might first appear. I want to quickly say just one other thing, and this is also to bring your own work into the conversation, Denny. I'm not suggesting that those of us in the civilian sector can possibly literally replicate what happens in the military. What I'm saying is we should be looking to the military to see what they do and to try to adapt it to our own particular circumstance.
I always talk now about leadership education, leadership training, and leadership development. And, although you have a slightly different sequence, you, yourself, as I mention in the book, concluded years ago that education, training, and development were all of importance. The military takes each of them seriously. Now, we can't necessarily replicate at the undergraduate level or in a business environment exactly what the military does. I'm not pretending that we can. But, I am saying that we should look to the military to give us some tips on how to, more seriously and more rigorously, teach people how to lead than what we generally have done up to now.
Denny: Right. One of the things that my friend told me was that in his military training he was taught that one’s success is tied to the success of all those around you. So, if you're in a team together, there is no way for an individual to come out on top with the rest of the team just faring as they will. It is always a matter of working together. It’s really about working towards common objectives and trying to do the best that one can possibly do. I think that is very translatable to practically any kind of an organization.
Barbara: I couldn't agree more, Denny. This conversation is practically leading me by the hand to another one of my favorite words, which I think most people don't take seriously enough, and that is, of course, followers. People still object to the word even though, as I've written and said for many years, along with a handful of my colleagues, you can't have a leader without at least one follower. People just don't like the word follow. At least a lot of people don't. I usually substitute words like others, team members, colleagues, peers, whatever word you want to use, but the field still fixates — in my view to its detriment — on individual self-improvement. I will learn this skill and I will learn that skill. Whereas the best kinds of leadership training, as you’re implying, is really a group effort. Even if the individual is emphasized, the individual leader should be taught that you can't lead without the collaborative work of those who are around you. Furthermore, to the extent that you lead well, it will be because you are supported by good followers, or good colleagues, or good peers, or good others. The corollary is that to the extent you lead badly, you do so because you are enabled in that miserable journey by others who do not have the courage to speak truth to power, or however you want to put it.
Denny: Right. In looking at those who lead badly, we should also look at those who follow badly. Indeed, that's one of the most challenging problems we have right now. We have people that are backing away from the responsibility of followership in terms of confronting power, questioning power, and basically asserting the broader good of all rather than the advancement of individuals or particular corporations. I couldn't agree with you more in terms of the critical importance of lifting followership up. The problem with followership is it can't be monetized in the same way that leadership can be monetized. What do you do about the fact that the leadership industry is, to some extent, driven by the fees that are charged for all these programs? How would you charge a fee for a followership program?
Barbara: Well, believe me, I've taught a course at the Kennedy school called followership and it tends not to be the most popular course on the roster. [Chuckle] So, I'm very well aware of the problem you’re describing. People want to learn how to lead. They want to be leaders. Leaders, leaders, leaders! I think it's really a terrible misfortune. But, once again, I would turn the lens back on us. I think those of us who understand how leadership works — that it's inevitably a dynamic between a leader and at least one other individual, if not more — should do a far better job than we have at integrating into our curriculum the notion of the follower and ideas about good followership. It's very rare.
The military does this, I will say, to a somewhat limited extent. That is, it uses the word follower. It talks about good followership, but it's very rare to find a course on good followership in the academy, not to speak of private sector organizations. Very, very rare. Leadership is a tango. You need at least one other person. It’s a collective action. We who know this and who understand it intellectually, as well as viscerally, don't do enough to communicate the importance of good followership. We’re not willing to go against the grain and it's a real problem.
Think about the U.S. Congress. It now has an approval rating of somewhere less than 10 percent, a ghastly low figure. In Congress, it's less a crisis of leadership than of followership. Members of Congress have forgotten how to work with each other, how to compromise, how to take collective joint action. They’ve forgotten that every now and then you subsume your own ego to the larger common good so that the next time around, if you're lucky, somebody will subsume his or her own ego in the interest of supporting something that you're interested in pushing ahead. We're just bad at it now. And part of that is because we're obsessed with teaching leadership without teaching followership alongside it, or civics alongside it, which is again, about the larger common good.
Denny: I don't know to what degree any leadership programs include a course, a unit, an experience to help those who seek to lead learn how to cultivate good followership. I don't know of any courses that address that directly.
When I was working abroad, one of the greatest challenges in terms of working across cultures was that many other cultures outside of the West do not lift up the individual as much as we do. There’s a whole ambivalence about hierarchy, but there’s also deference to authority. All of those kinds of things get really very muddy when you're trying to lead in a different cultural context. Some of my own struggles were related to getting people to actually challenge me or question me, getting them to bring what they had to the table so that I could make better decisions. I knew I needed their knowledge and their talent, but sometimes the deference to authority was so great that you couldn't get people to speak up and to speak their minds. And we're struggling with that in our own country today.
Barbara: I certainly think, Denny, that this re-raises the notion of the importance of context. When you were abroad, I believe you were largely in the Middle East, is that correct?
Denny: Correct. Yes.
Barbara: So, when you're based in the Middle East, in an Arabic country, you’re obviously functioning in a culture that's very different from the United States. With regard to thinking about this in terms of followership, in the 21st century there are really two tracks. One is the track that you're talking about, which is where the subordinate — and I'll use that word for a moment — is shy or frightened or doesn't think it's worth it to open his or her mouth vis-a-vis the boss, or the superior, or the leader, for fear of who knows what — for fear of being punished, or for fear of standing out, or for fear of being in some way marginalized. There are many reasons. And, certainly in the workplace, there are many reasons subordinates in any culture don't speak up to superiors. The notion in the West, and certainly in the U.S., is of the flatter hierarchy and empowerment. The very word “teams” tries to send the message that everybody's equal and everybody should feel free to speak up, and so forth and so on. But we all know, that for all that verbiage, people are still sometimes reluctant to speak up. At the same time, as I vigorously argued in The End of Leadership, the culture and the technology have changed so that in other ways and on other levels, followers are more outrageously independent and emboldened than they have ever been before.
Sometimes this independence is anonymous, sometimes it’s with a name attached, but in any case, there has been a severe decline of authority in recent years, whether it's in religion, or in education, or in business, or in politics. We, ordinary people, are exceedingly quick to denigrate those in positions of authority. Followers can't be painted with one brush. Some are deferential for various reasons, including professional ones, but others are outrageously emboldened in ways they have never, in human history, been before. Their capacity to communicate this denigration of the leader through, obviously, social media is historically unprecedented.
Denny: The unfortunate part of that is that most often that denigration, that challenge to authority or leadership, is not done in dialogue with leadership. It runs independent. Followers are not talking to their leaders, they're not challenging them directly. They're just talking about them and denigrating them from afar. This is why I think followership is so critical. We've got to figure out a way for each of us, as we flow in and out of followership and leadership, to engage and challenge and question so we can try to avoid some of these disastrous leadership mistakes that are being made in government and business and elsewhere. We just don't have very good models about how to do that.
Barbara: Yes. We don't have a good model because we don't pay much attention to followership for the reasons we spoke of earlier. As you're talking, Denny, I can't help but think of Trump's America. Whatever one may think of Donald Trump, the degree to which he dominates the discourse is stunning. He can tweet and the rest of the country, whether it's individuals, or institutions, or the media, or ordinary people, pays attention in a way that we've never paid attention to any president, at least not in my lifetime. He's just such a dominant figure.
Barbara: I might add that you can't understand Donald Trump without understanding that he has a very, very determined and dedicated coterie of followers who have not been put off in the least. Arguably, they've been, even, enchanted by some of his antics. He enjoys a high level of support among Republicans and he has gotten a Republican-dominated Congress to, by and large, remain silent as he has continued to do things that previously would have been considered outrageous. To fixate on this single individual is simply not to understand what's happened in the United States in recent years.
Denny: Absolutely. The world of Trump was in the back of my mind as I was raising the questions about followership. I'm sure you're reading many of the same authors that I am. There are those who are writing and suggesting that the very core of democracy, engagement, and the common good are at risk because of where this is headed. And, it comes down to a flawed view of what leadership is as well as an inadequate view of what responsible followership is.
Barbara: I would agree with that and would take it beyond the borders of the US. I think what you just suggested, Denny, is the larger problem of liberal democracy in the second decade of the 21st century. This problem is about leaders and it is about followers, and it is now about attractive alternatives that run counter to liberal democracy. For countries that are looking for models of how to be in the 21st century, we used to feel fairly confident that liberal democracy was the most appealing of the different models. It's not so clear that people around the world, including our own young people, feel as strongly about liberal democracy as earlier generations. In fact, the model of China, which some Americans see as increasingly authoritarian, if not totalitarian, is one that people are looking toward. What China has been able to accomplish in recent decades is absolutely stupefying. If you look at, for example, China’s infrastructure, or the economy, or the degree to which it has been able to raise people out of poverty in recent decades, it's absolutely mind boggling. At the same time, in the liberal West, or certainly in the United States, we're struggling with the most elemental things such as how to build good roads and decent airports and decent mass transit. It's a very large question that you're raising and there's no easy answer. I think it's fair enough to say though, exactly as you suggest, that Western countries are running into trouble in various ways that were inconceivable even a couple of decades ago.
Denny: Right. So, I want to shift gears a little bit and go back to something that you mentioned before, which was this very interesting synchronicity between your advocacy for education, training, and development and the training, education, and development work that I and other colleagues did out of Student Affairs. Same words, though we tended to use them in a different order. I think we're very much of the same accord in terms of how we define those terms and it's just absolutely stunning to me that we literally came up with that idea over 40 years ago. We published it. We provided workshops on it. We, to some degree, tried to spread word of it beyond Student Affairs. And, I admit the fault that I and others carry. We were often content to stay isolated within the academic community. Student affairs was doing its own thing. Frankly, we weren't even trying to influence faculty at first.
Later on, there were some very significant meetings that occurred in the eighties and the nineties and some good conversations about what we were going to do with this whole field of leadership learning or leadership studies. I, and others, went to these meetings and talked about the models that we were using in training, education, and development. We talked about the need to have multiple delivery methods. We talked about depth. We talked about development as a truly long-term idea. We had many of the ideas that you have advocated for in Professionalizing Leadership. But when we tried to bring those to the table, it just didn't work. We couldn't get a hearing. And, I think what's fascinating about this is that the academic community itself — in terms of the way that we organize ourselves and the way that we don't listen to each other — has, perhaps, kept us from moving forward in ways that would have served our communities to a much fuller extent.
I would quickly add that it's not over. We can change this now. In bringing the attention of the leadership industry to this, it provides an opportunity for us to say, “Wait a minute, what are we not learning from each other? How can we collaborate better so that we can achieve something of substance rather than continuing to work in our own worlds and trample over each other?”
Barbara: I'm deeply sympathetic to this question and have given it considerable thought. There's a reason why I spend time in Professionalizing Leadership describing how medicine and law became professions. I wanted to see what they did that we in the leadership field are not doing. How did they get their act together? Neither of those were professions to begin with. Nothing is a profession to begin with! To become a profession, you have to professionalize it. There are certain steps involved and virtually none of them have been taken by us in the leadership field. Arguably, what we have done least well is work with each other, which is exactly your point and one I certainly agree with. There is very, very little collaboration among different institutions and even within the same institution. I don't want to name names, but I've certainly had personal experiences with “the silo” where what's happening in one leadership silo has no bearing whatsoever on, no connection to, no collaboration with, what is happening with regard to leadership learning in another silo.
It’s sadly true that the academy is not known for being very good at interdisciplinary, interdepartmental work. For decades now, we’ve heard, “Let’s do interdisciplinary work. Let’s do multidisciplinary work. Let's collaborate.” But it's not easy within the academy. The academy is resistant. In the other professions, at some point, groups of interested people did begin to work from different places and different institutions. They did begin to work together and collaborate and eventually put their stamp on what had to be done and how. They organized. They developed a credentialing system. There are disadvantages to professionalizing, to be sure. It has an exclusionary component, an elitist component. People don't like some things about it. But I certainly feel that the virtues of professionalizing generally outweigh the deficits. So, one of the reasons leadership has stayed stuck is because there has been virtually no collaboration precisely to set standards, to professionalize.
I want to say one other thing here because I happen to think it's quite important. I don't think I said it in the book. One of the problems with collaboration in the leadership space is that when there has been some, it has tended not to include the top tier academic institutions, or private sector organizations. In fact, increasingly private sector organizations are doing their own thing. They're not only sending people out to executive programs, they're developing their own in-house leadership training programs for their own people and for their own purposes. I'm not saying there's no collaboration. We both know there are quite a number of groups that work with each other, but they have tended not to include the top tier academic institutions and I think that's been quite a problem.
Denny: Right. Why do you think that is? What's going on there?
Barbara: I think it's complicated, Denny. First, I think the top tier institutions have not seen a need to do that, as top tier institutions generally do not. Second, those who are not at top tier institutions have not been ready, willing, and able to try to do the political work of bringing some of them in. There is now, in general, a divide where the top tier institutions — whether it's business schools or education schools or whatever — are off doing their own thing while lower tier schools do sometimes collaborate. But as I said earlier, they’re collaborating without the stamp of legitimacy that the top tier institutions, like it or not, would otherwise lend.
Denny: Interesting. That is the privilege of being at an elite place. You don't have to play with others because you don't need to.
Denny: The fact of it is, this is replicated in other areas. I've been very interested in assessing student learning outcomes over the years and what's fascinating about that is that the elites tend not to want to talk to other people, compare notes, or even work together towards that objective. Whereas the mid-tier and below institutions are usually very eager to jump in to learn more and try to do better. There's a motivation there that really is quite remarkable. But it is difficult to get elites to even engage in the conversation. It's sad because it means that elite institutions don't learn things that they could learn from more modest institutions and more modest environments. The twist is that when we then try to benchmark, we almost always benchmark to the highest possible elite institution we can find. Right?
Denny: So, if there's no conversation to pursue mutual improvement, across places in the elite hierarchy, how do you then decide what's worth doing if you don't even have the conversation?
Barbara: Let me throw this out and tell me what you think of it, Denny. What if the mid-tier institutions, who are to some modest extent working together, were far more rigorous and ambitious in the way they taught leadership? What if they did a much better job of having student affairs collaborate with academic departments? And what if they didn't just see leadership as a sort of a skillset — a, let’s teach our students to develop confidence and do some social service work and so forth — but added to it a rigorous educational component?
I repeat, then, what I said earlier. I think education is the bedrock. I think it is the foundation. I think it must come first. I think it must come first as it comes first in every professional curriculum. You don't cut into somebody until you've studied anatomy. You need to study law before you can even begin to do any clinical practice. I would argue that one way the mid-level institutions could attract the attention of the more elite institutions is if they did a much better job of leadership education and training. This is not rocket science! I don't think it's all that difficult, but I think you have to understand that it is indeed a program of education, indeed a program of training, and indeed, paying some attention to developmental issues. If they worked harder on excellence would it catch the attention of elite institutions?
Why didn't student affairs, as you mention, get traction? I would argue it was because it didn't have the imprimatur of academic departments. We know the hierarchies of higher education. Student affairs departments, they're seen as off doing their student affairs stuff. They are not part of the academy in some fundamental ways. Faculty don't see Student Affairs as integral to the work they do. So, I think that leap has yet to be made. The goals have to be set much higher in the field of leadership than they generally have been. I'm not saying nobody's doing it; I'm saying that, in general, it's not being done. Not enough institutions are aiming high enough and the mid-level schools that could do this collaboratively, are not setting their sights high enough. They're settling in a way that does not attract the attention of the elite institutions. In general, the elite of the elite institutions have no reason to pay attention to what the mid-level institutions are doing because the mid-level institutions are not being rigorously ambitious — at least not by and large in my view.
Denny: I like very much what you’re saying. There is some evidence, actually, that some of that rigor has occurred in the Student Affairs ranks. For example, there is a set of standards for comprehensive student leadership programs on college campuses. There are journals and there are associations and meetings. It doesn't have the full complement of aspects that you describe in Professionalizing Leadership, but the elements are there. At the same time, I think that those who are doing that great work may not be ready for the big push. I own my own responsibility for this. I know that there are conversations that I have had where I felt like I was trying to bring a message that would help but there was a dismissiveness or at least a benign neglect toward what was being said. And, so, I backed away very quickly.
Barbara: I’m going to turn the question around, Denny. Why? Why was there this benign neglect? Too much work, too much time, too ambitious, doesn't pertain to my life. Why?
Denny: That’s a great question.
Barbara: I mean, you're saying that you've seen that some of the elements are there, at least in some number of places, but, to use your words, the big push hasn't been there to really, in a more collective way, raise the standards of the field or, to use my verb, to begin to professionalize it or to begin even to vocationalize it. It really raises the question of why has this not happened? Why? It's not as if the field is only five minutes old. It's ten minutes old. The leadership industry has been around for a couple of generations and is about 40 years old. But the question of why still strikes me as the all-important one. Especially since, by your own testimony, you're saying some or most of the elements are out there. It's not that they're not out there then, it’s that they haven't coalesced and gelled to create enough of a critical mass to make a real difference.
Denny: Exactly. That's the beauty of your having written Professionalizing Leadership. I have never actually had anyone kind of kick me in the intellectual pants and say, “Come on, get in there.” This is a field that I have contributed to and it's been a part of my career my entire life.
Barbara: Yes, it has!
Denny: I'm saddened that there hasn't been greater traction. Yes, there has been progress, which we need to keep our eyes on, but to some degree, when leadership learning — whether that's training, education, development, whatever terminology you want, the leadership industry — became popularized, it became kind of a bandwagon sort of thing. You had people that jumped on because they wanted to be able to say, “Yeah, we've got a leadership program.” And frankly I, and others, didn't say, “No, you don't. You're really doing this at way too superficial a level to even call yourself a leadership educator.” We didn’t say it and we should have.
Denny: I think that we have to be tough on each other. Compassionate, but tough. Those of us who may have felt like we were dismissed in these conversations, need to step up and say, “Look, we've got some evidence and we know that we've made a difference. We want to work and collaborate with you, our faculty colleagues, in order to make this even better.” Barbara you’ve just done such a great job of challenging us in Professionalizing Leadership and your earlier books to really think of this deeply.
Barbara: Denny, I think you've just made a really important point. I want to underscore it so that it's not merely made in passing. You said that it became so popular so fast. And, it was therefore relatively easy for people to mount courses, or programs, or workshops, or whatever to which people would come and are still coming. I think you're quite right about that. I think the very sexiness, or fashionableness, or faddishness of leadership let us get away with doing this way too easily. People were taking our courses or coming to our workshops or whatever without us having done the careful intellectual work of considering what constitutes a legitimate leadership curriculum. So, I think that's a really important point.
I know that when I came to Harvard, which is not quite 18 years ago, there were hardly any leadership courses there. I came and, of course, Ronnie Heifetz was there, and soon we had a critical mass of leadership teachers and we couldn't keep the students away. They were so strongly attracted to the idea of, “Oh, I'm going to become a leader!” And that's replicated in private sector corporations, and institutions, and organizations. It’s replicated at the undergraduate level and graduate programs, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I think that's a very important point that should not be underestimated. But, I want to take it one step further. I would venture to guess that unless we in the leadership industry get our act together, that sexiness, that faddish attraction to leadership will, in time, ebb. In fact, I think it's already ebbed. My guess is it's already peaked.
We now have competition. For example, the word entrepreneurship didn't used to exist. When it first started being popularized at Harvard, I asked people, “Why would we have something called entrepreneurship? That's a kind of leadership.” And they replied, “No, no, no, it's got to be a separate thing.” And now entrepreneurship has become immensely popular. It’s almost as if it’s all about the marketing of the product and not about the actual product. Unless leadership becomes a more serious curriculum, its attraction to people will be in danger of diminishing. They're going to realize, in time, that it's a bit hollow. In the beginning of Professionalizing Leadership, I say that when I wrote negatively about the leadership industry in 2012, I was quite alone. I'm still semi-alone, but I'm not nearly as alone as I was five, six years ago. There are other people besides me who have looked at this Emerald City and asked, “Is there any there, there?” I am virtually certain that this questioning of the leadership field will continue unless we take it much more seriously in the future than we did in the past.
Denny: I think there are a lot of people who bought the products of the leadership industry and who don't want to admit that maybe it wasn't worth it. But now that there are some questions being raised, the floodgates of buyer's remorse might open. I think there will be more people who will say, “To heck with this. I'm not satisfied, and I need it to be better and I want it to be better.” At that point, we can hopefully use that impetus to take the message seriously and get to work. I mean, I look at examples of where I see a corporate or a government leader or an educational leader doing certain things and you say to yourself, “How on God's earth did this person ever get a degree from a reputable institution and claim to be engaged in leadership?” They don't even know the rudiments of history. They don't know the rudiments of sociology or of psychology. They don't know basic content. It's just absolutely remarkable, the credentials that some of these people have. Something didn't work in the developmental process. It didn't take. And, they go out and can so easily turn into very, very negative forces for our world all the while thinking that they’re practicing good leadership.
Of course, one of the things that is really very challenging about this is the time limitations. And this is not just in higher education. It’s in the corporate world and in the government and all sorts of different places. Time limitations make this commitment to deep learning and development very, very challenging.
Barbara: I would agree with that, Denny. This is a very slight difference between us, but I try at the end of Professionalizing Leadership to warn against letting the perfect be the enemy of the good precisely because I recognize that most programs have neither the fiscal nor human resources, not to speak of the political will and capacity, to replicate what you would get in a very rigorous program such as the military. I think one can take cues from the military and from a model that includes training, education, and development — even if it's relatively minor and way below the standards that you and I would wish for. I think there has to be some nod in the direction of saying there is an intellectual field called leadership studies. Further, this study of leadership has its own intellectual rigor and you should understand something about it whether it's by reading the classics or reading some of the great social scientific experiments such as Milgram's obedience to authority study. You must have some understanding that there is a field out there that you should know something about, and you must have some understanding that training and development are also required.
And when I say development, you must have some understanding that this is really not a process that is completed at the end of your course or at the end of your workshop. It is a lifelong process that entails various notions of adult development as well as leadership development. I think we can send that message and leave it up to individuals then to take that message with them once they finish with us, whether “us” is a program or course or whatever. But I think it’s important for us to not only talk about how great it would be if we could do this wonderfully well in every case. If we can't do it wonderfully well in every case, maybe we can at least take some of the components of what people like you and I consider important and adopt them and adapt them to our own particular circumstance. To send our leadership learners the message that this is a lifelong process that requires intellectual development and understanding, as well as personal development and understanding.
Denny: Yes, that would be a profound outcome. I think of the power of mentor-protege relationships and the fact that most of us, if we were intentional learners, have gone through life constantly seeking somebody to learn from and learn with. That's a fairly simple thing to do. We need to say to people in our leadership experiences, to never stop. Leadership has to be a lifelong commitment and it’s important to seek people who are going to disagree with you, who are going to challenge you, and question you. We cannot be complacent about what leadership is and the potential for good and bad that can come from people who exercise various forms of leadership.
Barbara: Yeah! Very nicely put, Denny. I don't have to say another word. [Chuckles]
Denny: There is just one other area I would like to delve into a little bit. It’s fairly obvious that in this 21st century world we live in that creativity and innovation are going to have to be something we pay more attention to, so we have the opportunity to innovate in various fields of human endeavor. I'm wondering if you have thoughts about fostering the innovation and the risk taking and the unconventional ways of being that's required. How have you thought about that in relation to leadership education, training, and development?
Barbara: I guess I would answer your question about innovation the way I normally answer the question are leaders born or made? A question, I'm sure you have also received many times over your professional life. The answer I generally give is, “Is a pianist born or made?” Well, a pretty good pianist is made, but a great pianist — the kind of pianist for which you would pay 50 bucks or 75 bucks, maybe even 100 bucks to go and listen — that is a combination of having been made and having been also born with certain innate talents and gifts that cannot be replicated. You can teach somebody a million hours — but you cannot make them a great pianist, or a great cook, or a great runner, or a great swimmer, or anything else for that matter. You can make them good, but not great. So it is with leadership.
In terms of innovation, you can teach people how to have a context and environment that encourages innovation. But, I would say there is an unknown quality of genius, of creativity, of artistry that you can’t teach. Some of the greats, the Steve Jobs of the world, straddled the worlds of art and creativity as much as they straddled the world of technology. So, we can do certain things to encourage innovation, and then we have to cross our fingers and hope that there are some brilliant innovators in our midst. We basically have to understand that some talents are simply inborn. We can foster a creative context, we can train people and we can educate people and we can prepare people and develop them. But we can't give them that spark of invention that I would argue is bestowed either by nature or God depending on your point of view.
Denny: In my own life experience, and as I read of other great innovators and artists, it seems that frequently their inspiration, and my own, comes from a shift in context. They may have become comfortable with a way of being and then all of a sudden something changed, and that shift in context then broke open to a new area of innovation for them. As you know, I was in Europe last week and I went to visit one of Gustav Mahler’s composing huts. On the alpine lakes of Austria, he built for himself these very small, one room, composition huts. He would get up early in the morning and he would go for a swim in a freezing cold alpine lake and then he'd sit down at the piano and start composing and he wouldn't move from the room until the afternoon. Then in the afternoons he would always go for a bike ride or a hike in the mountains and spend time with family. For the most part, he only composed during the summertime and was a conductor the rest of the year. The remarkable thing was, he was creating for himself the context to innovate, to come to new ideas. Without separating himself and without taking the time and effort to very intentionally put himself into a different place, I don't think he ever would have created the things that he did.
Barbara: Well, he obviously felt that way, otherwise, he wouldn't have done it, right? But here's my question for you, Denny. If instead of Gustav Mahler in that little hut, you had the Austrian version of John or Jane Smith in that hut, would they have come up with anything as brilliant as Mahler's symphonies? I’m not diminishing the importance of context, and I do hear your point about how change can sometimes trigger new thoughts and new ideas in a way that spaces alone simply cannot. Clearly Mahler was inspired by that change and location, exactly as you are saying. But you can have the most perfect context for creativity and unless you put a creative soul in that context, you're not going to get much innovation or creativity. I suppose we could compromise and say that it's a combination of the individual and the setting within which the individual is placed. But, on the other hand, we also know that there were great writers and composers who were insurance agents all their lives, sitting behind the same desk every day.
When you're talking about changing contexts, I'm reminded of Joseph Campbell who, in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, makes a similar point. Now this is a very particular context, but Joseph Campbell's idea was that in order to be a hero — the Mandelas and Martin Luther King, Jrs. and, by the way, the Hitlers, also fall into this category — you need to have been through a kind of hell which you then reemerge from. In other words, you have to go through something you could call a contextual change if you like, and then reemerge in order to be seen as a hero. So it was with Mandela, incarcerated for almost 30 years and then emerging triumphant to be seen as heroic. That, I would argue, is perhaps related to what you're talking about, how change can produce greatness — at least some of the time.
Denny: It's a matter of degree, I think. In the same way that you were talking about an average pianist versus a gifted pianist. Pretty much anyone can learn how to play the piano, but to learn how to play it with passion and expression and true insight, takes both extreme levels of discipline as well as very high levels of creativity and insight.
Barbara: And presumably natural talent. There is something like natural talent even in the world of leadership. I dare say that the great leaders almost certainly demonstrate some inborn capacity that those of us who are lesser mortals do not truly have.
Denny: And I bet you in almost all of those cases, they are also rabidly committed to their ongoing, lifelong development of those skills, abilities, and insights.
Barbara: Absolutely. It’s part of their lifelong mission.
Denny: Barbara, this has been a marvelous conversation.
Barbara: Denny, thank you. I greatly appreciate your interest and attention and the synchronicity between us. It's terrific. It’s something I did not initially anticipate, and I'm delighted to have encountered it. I thank you so much for your care and your intelligence as well. So much appreciated.
Denny: Is there anything I missed that you would like to add?
Barbara: I think we covered a lot of ground. I want Professionalizing Leadership to be seen as something that's accessible as opposed to inaccessible. I'm repeating myself, but perhaps it's a good note on which to end. I use the military as a model, but it would be wonderful if, in time, people took seriously what both you and I are arguing for, which is really only to take leadership a bit more seriously than we have in the past and to give it the intellectual and practical rigor that you and I deeply believe it deserves.
Denny: Absolutely. Thank you so much. I look forward to continuing the conversation in West Palm Beach this October!
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