In the Trump Age, Is the Word 'Leadership' Meaningless?

By Turner, Nick; Professor of Organizational Behaviour and Distinguished Chair et al. | The Canadian Press, August 25, 2017 | Go to article overview

In the Trump Age, Is the Word 'Leadership' Meaningless?


Turner, Nick, Professor of Organizational Behaviour and Distinguished Chair, Calgary, University of, The Canadian Press


In the Trump age, is the word 'leadership' meaningless?

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This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.

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Author: Nick Turner, Professor of Organizational Behaviour and Distinguished Chair in Leadership, University of Calgary

Years ago, Mrs. Bartlett, my third grade teacher, put a moratorium on the word nice in her classroom.

"It's a feel-good, hollow word that's easy to swallow and hard to contest -- and probably something we wouldn't want to contest anyway," she said.

Mrs. Bartlett and George Orwell would agree.

In his essay Politics and the English Language, Orwell wrote that meaningless words "do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader."

Mrs. Bartlett's lesson that day was the importance of clear and precise language to say what we mean and to take responsibility for the words we use.

Thirty-five years later, I would like to apply the same moratorium on the word leadership -- at least until we are willing to say what we mean by leadership, and take responsibility for doing so.

At a point in history in which U.S. President Donald Trump's leadership abilities are being questioned on an almost daily basis, maybe it's just as Orwell once said: there can be benefits to meaningless language, in politics but particularly in business circles.

"Joan is a true leader."

"John led the change initiative."

"We're leaders in public accounting."

"The senior leadership team has decided..."

Means nothing

Unfortunately, the word leadership in the business world has become a pliable form of praise that can stand for everything and nothing all at the same time. And perhaps this haziness, as Orwell suggests, is powerful.

For some reason, leadership in business circles has reduced managing to something more formulaic and generally less worthy, although it certainly sounds better. Who would want to be called a manager when you can be called a leader?

"Joan is a true manager," after all, lacks the same sparkle.

According to researchers Mats Alvesson and Stefan Sveningsson, attaching leadership cache to everyday behaviours like acknowledging others, listening well and generally just chatting "extraordinarizes the mundane." When active listening happens in the pub, for example, we call it friendship; when done by our executives or even commanders-in-chief, we call it leadership.

Automatically granting leadership status to job titles may highlight a manager's authority over others and his or her profile within an organization, but it also reflects how unquestioning we are about what leadership is.

Why is it so difficult to define leadership -- and perhaps also desirable for businesses to disguise what they mean by it?

How to define 'real' leadership?

As a leadership scholar I contend, first, that we confuse interpersonal influence -- at the core of any theory of leadership --with what we believe its outcomes are.

Defining leadership in terms of the innovation it produces, the profitability it claims to yield or how it ignites progress muddies the waters between cause and effect.

And when we believe we've determined the effect, who cares about the cause? But with this type of thinking, what a leader is or does is almost beside the point.

In fact, it's well-documented that we overestimate how much influence a particular person's behaviours have on successful and unsuccessful outcomes.

This is known as the romance of leadership: for example, our assertion that a CEO leads her company to record earnings disregards the social influence and decisions of thousands of other people, along with a host of salient industry or market factors and just plain old good timing. …

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