Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Reading :: The Myth of Leadership

The Myth of Leadership: Creating Leaderless Organizations
By Jeffrey S. Nielsen

On Amazon.com, Jeffrey Nielsen's The Myth of Leadership currently has ten five-star reviews and one one-star review. Unfortunately, I'm going to have to go with the one-star review.

Nielsen's book is ostensibly about how to break away from hierarchical, leader-heavy organizations and instead create peer-based leaderless organizations. Unfortunately, he never actually defines "leadership" except in terms of formal rank, assuming that flattening rank is equivalent to removing leadership. Of course, this approach is really not tenable, so after railing against leadership for 141 pages, on p.142 he introduces the "strategy of rotational leadership" (p.142).

That's an emblematic example of how problematic the book is. But it's not the only example. Frankly, the book's cartoonish depiction of hierarchies troubles me. Nielsen argues that "genuine communication occurs only between equals" (p.4) because "you tell those above you only what you think they want to hear, and you tell those beneath you only what you think they need to know" (p.5) - a statement that is not borne out in my research, certainly, and that I suspect doesn't describe the general workforce. Nielsen builds on this false premise - for starters - by arguing that "secrecy frequently breeds corruption and abuse of power" (p.4). In fact, in the next few pages, he makes incredible, irresponsible leaps:
  • "If the rank-based context of leadership is a primary cause of unhealthy and joyless business organizations..." (p.6);
  • "Whenever we think in terms of 'leadership,' we create a dichotomy: (1) leaders, a select and privileged few, and (2) followers, the vast majority" (p.6);
  • the term leadership "produces a privileged elite who, no matter how sincere they are, will eventually be seduced by their position" (p.6);
  • peer-based organizations involve "no thought of leadership because there is no thought of ranking" (p.7).
These are oversimplifications, but they are also - particularly the last one - empirically wrong across organizations. Nielsen backs up this last point with an anecdote about a pickup game of football that completely undercuts his point. Although we do see where he gets his claim about people becoming sychophants in organizations, since he describes himself becoming a sychophant in a pickup game with an assertive leader (pp.7-8).

Nielsen name-checks Foucault, Gladwell, Castells, and of course chaos theory, without much indication that he understands any of them. He barely touches on some organizational forms (tribal, institutional, networked), but he barely touches on their historical development and he doesn't mention one of the most important factors - the plummeting cost of communication - as a key factor except as an afterthought at the end of the book (p.163). Instead, he portrays hierarchical organizational structure as an inexplicable accident that brings out the worst in people.

In the latter half of the book, Nielsen attempts to articulate some principles and practices for leaderless organizations (including the aforementioned "rotational leadership"). But by then, I had lost faith that he (a) knew what he was talking about and (b) would give a fair shake to criticisms of his ideas. By the time Nielsen lurched to a stop, with the claim that democracy is inevitable (p.165), I had given up on insights and simply decided to finish the book.

I can't recommend this book.

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