The $2 Trillion Leadership Widget

Oct 6, 2009

I like widgets. I use them all the time. I’ve got maybe 40 or so on my iPhone, and 10 to 12 on my desktop. Between my web sites and information aggregators like my Google home page, I use tens more – maybe 100 to 150 in total – over the course of a week.Widgets are built for a purpose, and it’s a good one: to allow (and promote) short, light-touch use of a larger service or application. Distinguishing between the use of each (the widget and the main application or service) is significant.

I regularly use my iPhone apps to browse the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, but at weekends or other times when I want to read in depth, I buy the actual newspaper. The email widget on my phone is great for shooting off a quick response, but when I need to clear a serious amount of email, I fire up the email app on my computer. The weather widget is great for a quick look at what’s coming later, but planning a two-week trip calls for a full-blown visit to Weather.com. I can record today’s expenses using the little widget I found at the iTunes store, but my annual accounts requires the power of QuickBooks (sadly). Your mileage may vary, but you get the idea.

For the last 20 years or so, corporate training and development departments have been teaching leadership as a widget, rather than as an app.

Driven by a benevolent desire to see leadership practiced in places other than just the executive suite, training and development programs have proliferated with the primary purpose of helping middle managers, team leaders, supervisors and front line employees exhibit leadership skills in appropriate circumstances. These ‘leadership lite’ programs are in themselves, great (full disclosure: over the years, I’ve taught many of them) – their intention is good, and the results have often been positive for the organizations that implemented them. But it’s important to see that what they teach is, in effect, the use of a leadership widget – not the ‘leadership app’ as a whole.

Here’s the problem: Twenty years later, many proficient users of the leadership widget are now in positions of significant, sustained, full-time leadership (running Fortune 100 companies for example), without ever having learned to use the full app. The last two years has brought this into sharp focus as we’ve seen so-called leader after so-called leader caught staring into the headlights as they reached the boundaries of what they could achieve with their leadership widget. The global cost to date? About $2 trillion.

There’s a substantial degree of shared responsibility in this failure – yes, many executives have demonstrated an arrogance and hubris that led them to believe they could manage substantial businesses by being jerks most of the time and reaching for their leadership widget only as needed, but the organizations that provisioned their rising stars with only a leadership widget are also to blame.

Look at your leadership training and development: are you handing your people just the widget?