leadership in the rear-view mirror

I doubt that students at Stanford thought they would become sadistic prison guards when they entered that university, primed for higher learning.

I doubt that the teacher who gave electric shocks to a “student” had planned that as part of her day.

I doubt that when budding physicians enter medical school, any plan on torturing people through rectal feeding.

Why do good people do bad things? In most cases, it’s the system.

Leadership is not getting people to do things for you. It is not being in charge and making decisions. Real leadership, the only leadership anyone should aspire to, is making more human systems. This can be a company, a non-profit organization, an institution, a government agency, or your family.

buildingAnything less than working on creating a better system for people is not leadership. It may be self-aggrandizement, vanity, or even custodial work, but it is not leadership. Good leaders prepare for their departure. All that is left when they depart are the structures and systems they have helped put in place. The measure of a leader is his or her legacy. If they get a performance review, it should be given years after they leave. I wonder how many of our current leaders would get a positive review in retrospect. Probably not very many, if 19 alumni of Harvard Business School who made it to the top, are any indication.

“A majority, 10, seemed clearly to have failed, meaning that the company went bankrupt, they were forced out of the CEO chair, a major merger backfired, and so on. The performance of another 4 we found to be questionable at least. Some of these 14 CEOs built up or turned around businesses, prominently and dramatically, only to see them weaken or collapse just as dramatically.” – Henry Mintzberg

5 Responses to “leadership in the rear-view mirror”

  1. Ben Riseman

    Yeah, makes sense to me. While some leaders are born, leadership is a quality that emerges from culture. I am not sure that HBS intentionally mentors new leaders into the role of builders or creators of better systems for people.

  2. Hugh Aitken

    The internet is key to massive change in how we identify leadership. The industrial revolution was driven by 10 million people. With access to the internet through mobile devices even those who are still poor have asperations associated with the middle class now number 2 billion. This is the challenge for the future which Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer address in their book Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego System to Eco System Economies. In it they bring together a global systems perspective which provides a refreshing approach to the future of how we develop our organisations/institutions of the future.

  3. Shaun Coffey

    Don’t agree. Good leaders leave behind good people capable of making further changes to systems and processes so that the orgnisation can continue to anticipate the future.

    • Harold Jarche

      Even if good leaders leave behind good people, a bad system will defeat them. As Churchill said, “First we shape our structures, and then our structures shape us“. Think about who is the most important person on board a ship. Is it the Captain, the Navigator or the Engineer? Actually, it’s the Architect, in my opinion, because the initial design influences everything else.

      A good leader may be able to do good things in spite of a bad system, but when he or she leaves, then the system flaws come out again. The US Navy did a study on this, showing that rotating commanding officers every two years ensured that those who stayed longer, such as NCO’s, were able to revert the culture to their preferred steady state. That is how misogynistic cultures are able to continue, even when policies and senior staff try to root them out.


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)