Syndrome of Individuality

In a Financial Times article published this week, Professor Henry Mintzberg denounces the teaching of leadership so popular these days in U.S. MBA programs. His comments continue an ongoing debate about how B-schools can best prepare graduate students to meet the needs of modern organizations.

We have this obsession with ‘leadership’. Its intention may be to empower people, but its effect is often to disempower them. By focusing on the single person, leadership becomes part of the syndrome of individuality [that is] undermining organisations.

A syndrome of individuality has long been evident in American culture. Mass media focuses on singular leaders in positions of authority; the CEO, the president, the quarterback. We focus on individual “superstars” much more than effective contributors to collaborative efforts. Corporate reward structures often still focus on individual performance, or link only a small percentage of bonuses to the productivity of the team.

Excessive attention to leadership can be disheartening to many, because it appears to discount the value of non-leaders. Taking into account that so few employees ever become managers or corporate leaders, Ira Chaleff suggests in his book Courageous Follower that it is more important for companies to offer training on being a good follower than it is to concentrate solely on leadership. Such training can signal that the organization also values those who do not hold management positions, as well as teach important teamwork and “followship” skills. (This is not to suggest that companies should eliminate leadership training; rather that opportunities exist to broaden the scope of training.)

Clearly, many organizations have made progress in embracing a culture of collaboration, becoming flatter, and dispersing authority and accountability to those closest to the issues. With the urging of Mintzberg and others, is it possible that top-flight teaching institutions, and the country as a whole, will move away from the syndrome of individuality?

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