This post on how our love for leadership ultimately undermines consulting effectiveness continues our series looking at what interferes with our capacity to serve, even in the face of our best intentions. It speaks to the industry as a whole, though both internal and external consultants will recognize the tensions between doing what is popular and providing genuine service to a client.
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We have been in search of leaders since the late seventies. Before that, we were in search of managers. We now have a leadership development industry fueled more by training and presentation than by consulting. The industry is led by authors and ex-chief executive officers who, in many cases, have found more meaning teaching leadership than providing it. The headliners come not only from private industry, but also from politics, sports, and the government.
The high end of the leadership industry is really a seminar and workshop business. At the top, the pay is good, the hours are reasonable, and the expectations are pretty low. No one asks about the financial return to the organization as the result of a celebrity presentation. They just wish the celebrity could have stayed around longer.
The number of leadership sessions offered within companies and as public conferences keeps growing. I have even been the beneficiary of this trend.
One large company required a week of training for the top two thousand executives. Forty sessions ran for fifty executives at a time. Monday was globalization, Tuesday was finance, Thursday was product innovation, and Friday was a talk with the top. Wednesday was a day on empowerment, and I had written a book on the subject. So I showed up as the centerfold of the week and talked about creating an empowered workforce, a subject of greatest interest only to myself and those sitting in the back of the room who sponsored the program. The empowerment interest has now been converted to agility, innovation, and thinness.
Though some of the participants seemed somewhat engaged in what they were learning, most were going through the motions—there only to get their ticket punched. When I finally withdrew from the program, I received from the support staff a special goodbye present: a t-shirt with a slightly cynical message on it about the true impact of the effort.
The consulting complexities built into working with clients on leadership development is that the effort holds on to the belief that organizations are the creation of those who run them. Training the organization’s leaders becomes the centerpiece strategy for improving it. In fact, there is little evidence that training leaders has any impact on organizational change, and there is little accountability for the investment made in leader training.
This is in sharp contrast to the way training at lower levels is scrutinized. Train supervisors for two hours a week for six weeks and we are asked to defend the investment. Send the top management team to a university for four weeks, and the question of value received is limited to asking the participating managers whether they liked the program. Four weeks in Cambridge, Charlottesville, Evanston, Palo Alto—what’s not to like?
The ethical challenge for internal and external consultants alike is how best to serve the client without colluding in what is essentially a form of elitism, perpetuating the notion that organizations will forever live in the shadow of its leaders.