Our Obsession with the Lycra-Clad Thighs of Leadership

'Leadership' does not design new railway carriages, make chocolate biscuits, or answer the phone to customers.

May 2022 | Leadership

As a culture we privilege ‘leadership’ over ‘doing the work’. Graduates scramble toward management as the accepted path to a rewarding career. Workplace status and team size routinely go hand in hand. Millions are spent on leadership training. Leadership matters, of course. But, our obsession with the trappings – the corner office, the grand title, the salary – as well as the role of leadership risks both employee engagement and the bottom line.

Wobbly bicycle of leadership

The preoccupation with leadership distorts our understanding of what makes businesses thrive. Take this article, The Art of Leadership and Riding a Bicycle. (The source Culture University is an educational blog that counts on its faculty Edgar Schein, renowned Professor Emeritus of MIT Sloan.) The author Tom Crane suggests the bicycle as a metaphor for leadership: ‘[starting] with the bicycle seat, this is from where leadership operates, steering and empowering the organization’.

This piece is typical of writing on leadership, and toward the end you will find several ‘implications’. These, however, have little to do with the author’s original premise and the bicycle metaphor baffles more than it illuminates. Still, the image – if it says anything – highlights common misconceptions about leadership versus doing (i.e., day-to-day effort to create the products and services for which an organisation exists).

Who cranks the pedals anyway?

Leadership does not generate products or services. It does not design new railway carriages, manufacture chocolate biscuits, or answer customers’ phone calls. Nor does leadership account for the business of operations, marketing, compliance or any other function you care to name.

Such outputs come from more directly ‘productive’ activities, when colleagues work together toward an agreed purpose. In other words, if there be a bicycle at all, then it is not pedalled by leaders but by the broader employee population. (If leaders are pedalling, then whilst in the saddle they are doing something alongside their leadership duties.)

Role of leadership

The motive energy and power of an organisation are found in its capacity to translate resources — time, skills, capital, relationships and so on — into value for employees, customers and shareholders. Leadership enables this effort by creating the conditions for strong performance and, as it were, oiling the wheels and keeping the system on course: leaders direct and guide; they help people to avoid obstacles – arguably a metaphorical ‘steering’. Their job is to keep the organisation aligned with its business purpose (see my article Why Management Exists).

Nevertheless, unlike the rider of a bicycle, leadership is not the horsepower within a business. Leaders do not operate the pedals. Imagine what would happen if all employees involved themselves in leadership all of the time — plainly, the answer is very little.

Employee engagement risks

Exaggerated notions of the role and value of leadership burden people in management positions. This thinking also demotivates those whose job is to produce core outputs. Our obsession harms wider employee engagement. It causes other ‘alignment’ obstacles – resources are siphoned into the business of leadership rather than invested in the business of – well – the business. (Read Why 40 Hours’ Work Makes Only 20 Hours’ Difference for how this makes everyone’s job harder.)

Of course, in a fast-evolving marketplace no organisation will go far without sound leadership. Still, a firm that does not champion ‘productive’ employees will go nowhere at all. Rather like Crane’s bicycle.

In tandem

On that original metaphor, I remain unconvinced that employees be merely, to quote Crane, the ‘back tire’ – spinning in dizzy circles under the Lycra-clad thighs of leadership, one assumes.

People will be better engaged, and business will thrive, when we embrace a more precise and relevant notion of leadership. This culture change will allow firms to champion the indispensable value of (and invest in) other, more directly productive efforts. Everyone will prosper when people work together, harnessing differences but as equals – in tandem, if you must.

Image Emma Miller | Unsplash

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