Is ‘Leadership’ Becoming a Titanic? (2022)

Jean Claude Noel

Is ‘Leadership’ Becoming a Titanic?

‘Leadership’ has steadily spread through the corporate world, business schools, and executive education, in various forms and reinventions, such as ‘Leadership for Performance’, ‘Sustainable Leadership’, ‘Strategic Leadership’, ‘Leadership for Change’, ‘Agile Leadership’, ‘Leadership and Decision-making’, ‘Effective Leadership’ or ‘Authentic Leadership’ to name just a few. Furthermore, essential issues mirroring society have been added in recent years, starting with CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility), now DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion), or Corporate Environmental Responsibility (CER), all extremely relevant for organizations as they attempt to define their ‘Mission Statements’ and ‘Company Values’. At this stage of my life, I have seen many such statements and am yet to see much difference among them, ranging from ‘customer centric’, to ‘integrity’, ‘trust’, ‘respect’, ‘innovation’, ‘teamwork’, and of course ‘our employees are our most valuable asset’. Attempting to address these important aspects is very commendable, but are they really ‘lived’ or just ‘stated’? It leaves me with the image of an overloaded ship, becoming rudderless and sinking, like the Titanic. 


These thoughts were somewhat triggered by a recent event. I was recently attending a Harvard Medical School (HMS) Colloquium organized by Mass General Hospital (MGH) on Cancer Equity. Community Outreach and Engagement (COE) was one of the main subjects, leading a very engaged speaker to say: “COE is not a checkbox!”. This immediately raised the question in my mind as to whether these statements, values and other commitments made by organizations may not just be ‘checkboxes’, satisfying the annual report requirements, or looking good on a website, but are they enough to make them ‘preferred employers’ or ‘preferred suppliers’? Where do we draw the line between a ‘marketing tagline’ and ‘genuine responsibility’? In other words, who do you fool? At this same Cancer Equity event, a very passionate nurse, also the founder of an association supporting cancer patients in disadvantaged neighborhoods, gave the answer: “People read people”.


What then will prevent this ‘Titanic’ from hitting the next iceberg? When I feel overwhelmed, I tend to return to the past. In a 1961 article titled ‘Understanding Leadership’ (Harvard Business Review September/October 1961 and again published in HBR in January 2004)), W. C. H. Prentice defined leadership as “the accomplishment of a goal through the direction of human assistants”. He would see a leader’s unique achievement as a “human and social one which stems from his understanding of his fellow workers”. He thought that “an ideal organization should have workers at every level reporting to someone whose dominion is small enough to enable him to know as human beings those who report to him”. In reflecting the vertical and structured organization prevailing at the time, his thoughts may now appear outdated, but his rejection of the “notion of leadership as the exercise of power and force” and the introduction of the “human and social” element provided a new foundation to ‘leadership’. 


The more fundamental change came later under the influence of two Harvard Business School scholars. Abraham Zaleznik and Harry Levinson moved the focus from ‘process’ to ‘substance’ by applying organizational psychodynamics to leaders and leadership. They were joined by Manfred Kets de Vries, who became a ‘pioneer’ in leadership education showing vision and courage when creating his flagship ‘Challenge of Leadership’ (COL) program at INSEAD in 1991, which he still runs more than thirty years later. Far from the current ‘puzzle of words and concepts’, Manfred Kets de Vries’s ongoing life commitment is ‘simply’ to “make better leaders” by first allowing them to connect or reconnect with themselves and become better human beings. He wanted these leaders to “stop being strangers to themselves”.


I had the privilege of attending the first Consulting and Coaching for Change (CCC) Master program designed by Manfred Kets de Vries in 2001/2002, in some way, an extension of his COL program, enabling some of us to contribute to “making better leaders”. This was not a ‘teaching’ program but a ‘learning’ program. It connected me to a definition of leadership I embraced from Henry Kissinger, former U. S. Secretary of State: “Taking people from where they are to where they have not been”. At the end of this program, Manfred Kets de Vries, allowed me and others to “do something we did not know we were capable of doing”. Ultimately, he embodied a fundamental aspect of leadership, as a ‘mentor’ more than a ‘teacher’, enabling a former senior executive like me to move “from the boardroom to the classroom” (Kets de Vries, M. - 2007, Coach and Couch), and set my path on a road of discovery, starting with self-discovery. None of the programs listed at the beginning of this paper would ever achieve such transformation, and, for that matter, none will ever reach the longevity achieved by COL or CCC over several decades. In this case, inspiration and substance are ‘real life’ experiences, not ‘buzz words’. 


This approach defines leadership with quite a distance from Prentice’s “human assistants” by bringing the ‘leader’ in the forefront as a ‘human being’ and a ‘merchant of hope’. This ‘return to the past’ turns out to be a helpful “back to the future”. What then makes Kets de Vries’s approach different? Part of the answer is that he sees the world of leadership at the interface of international management, cognitive theory, psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, and executive coaching, not to mention his initial studies in Economics. Blending a variety of ‘images’ brings different perspectives, out of reach when simply adding ‘words and concepts’. 


Having devoted the past twenty years to executive education, consulting and coaching, learning remains my ‘lifeline’. Following these years surrounded by psychoanalysts, I became interested in getting a psychoanalytic ‘lens’ and joined a Master’s Program in Psychoanalysis, Society, and Culture at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis (BGSP). The school’s ambition is to develop ‘well-trained mental health practitioners’ and provide ‘a deep understanding of human nature’. I was particularly attracted by that second aspect and realized that a life experience is really down to very few elements: the memory of holding my grandfather’s hand as a young child, the good fortune of coming across a few generous mentors, a loving family and meaningful relationships across many different cultures. This may be the closest one can get to ‘happiness’ as defined by Kant: “Something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to”, grandchildren being the best representation of hope. At this stage of my life, I am not defined by ‘what I did’, but ‘who I am’, in line with Irvin Yalom’s quote: “Become who you are" (Yalom, I. – 1992 – When Nietzsche Wept).


I also realize that I may be more of a ‘leader’ now than I ever was as an Executive Board member. Yet, I no longer have anyone reporting to me. As a volunteer in an outpatient cancer center or, recently, a ‘citizen-scientist’, working with clinicians, researchers, patients, and communities on psychosocial cancer research with the objective to reduce disparities in access to cancer care, I am an ‘outsider’ but probably closer than ever to finding a meaningful role. My role, is mostly to listen, exchange, and, precisely, provide an ‘outside’ perspective. I have the privilege of interacting in a hospital environment with wonderful human beings, as again demonstrated in my recent experience attending the HMS Cancer Equity event. Every day, they ‘lead’ in an inspiring way, with empathy, respect, and humanity. ‘Presence’ may identify each and every one of them more than the ‘standardized’ word of ‘leadership’. 


‘Leadership’ as defined may find its place within the limited boundaries of large corporate organizations, while ‘Presence’ is thriving everywhere else if one takes the time to look. This notion of ‘presence’ reminded me of the early period of the Covid pandemic in 2020, as New York was overwhelmed by infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. At the time, ‘healthcare workers’ and ‘essential workers’ were celebrated every night at 7:00 PM as ‘heroes’, which they were. Two years later in 2022, celebrations are gone and the ‘heroes’ have gone back to ‘invisibility’, even though they are as or more ‘present’ and ‘essential’. ‘New voices’ in leadership should have the ‘disruptive presence’ of celebrating people when they are invisible, not just when they are visible. 


As a reflection of society, organizations are multiple in size, scope, range, purpose, for profit or non-for profit and work itself is more diverse than ever before. It may be time for the business world to take notice and leave the rough waters of the Titanic for the smooth sailing of ‘Presence’. 


Jean Claude Noel is Senior Associate at KDVI and Citizen-Scientist at Mount Sinai Hospital Tisch Cancer Institute in New York.

KDVI, 2022

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