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Everything You Know About Leadership Is Wrong
By Liz Ryan
April 12, 2013 2:15 PM EDT
Photograph by Anthony Harvie

As a corporate human resources person (in a past life), I was invited to leadership workshops and training events fairly often. It must also be said that I was eager to go. I figured every new workshop and seminar would give me insights into leadership and the magic of team-building that I’d never get on my own. For the most part, I was wrong.

Here’s the problem with leadership training: We dispense tools and techniques without talking about what’s really at issue. People working together have personalities that merge or collide like waves in the ocean. The collisions can cause tension. If that tension isn’t addressed, it’ll surface in workplace conflict, jurisdictional battles, political intrigue, hurt feelings, and lost productivity. Yet leadership trainers often shy away from tackling those problems head on and respond with: “Here are some tips to try.” It doesn’t take a PhD in organizational psychology to talk forthrightly about fear and trust at work. We can have those conversations; we only have to stop being boxed-up weenies long enough to remember that we are human beings first and corporate people second.

Every leadership course I’ve ever attended was based on the notion that leaders have a fundamentally different task from the people they supervise. Only the leaders or leaders-in-training are in the room for those sessions. Why? Does some magical thing make leaders different from other employees? Of course. Someone higher up the chain conferred on that person a label that says: “You’ve been anointed.” That is the only difference, and the only one that matters, in a bureaucracy. Let’s not forget that what’s significant about the conferred-from-above leadership status is that it gives extra power to the person who’s been named a leader. That power is inextricably linked to fear—as in, “You should be afraid of getting on his bad side because he could fire you.”

This is what’s broken both in leadership training and in corporate leadership. If fear were removed from the mix, we’d say to employees: “Look, Janice is the team leader because she knows what’s going on and she’s been here a while. Still, everyone is a leader. Use your good judgment. Janice can’t fire you—that would make it too easy for her to wield her power over people to keep them in line with her views. We need everyone’s good ideas to float up to whatever altitude they deserve. But use Janice as a resource and a coach, because she knows our company cold, and she’s a great listener.”

What if that were the message to employees, rather than: “The person who hired you has absolute power over your employment here, so behave accordingly.” We know that real leaders use influence rather than power to pursue their goals, but we still run our organizations as though we’ve never come across an influence-fueled, trusting leader. Perhaps many of our corporate chiefs have not. We certainly see fear-based, petty bureaucrats with no imagination or spark leading teams everywhere we look. They go to leadership training classes where only other so-called leaders fill the room. The actual employees who do the work are nowhere to be seen. Evidently the magical secrets of leadership are not for the eyes and ears of common workers. What does that exclusivity tell us?

We don’t have to lead in the bureaucratic style anymore. The age of the human workplace is here. Technology and global markets are screaming this reality at us: The best people won’t play this outdated game. They won’t submit to a fear-based culture, and bless them for that. They are leading the way for the rest of us, out of the box (and the cubicle) and into the human workplace.

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