The pivotal role of leadership is in question. Have you been in leadership courses at university, learnt about it in management studies at school, or sat in professional development seminars at work and asked yourself why?
If it is being taught and talked about with so much evidence supporting its role in outcomes from medicine and sport to business and government, then who are we to question?
Leadership has been a long-time focus of HR management systems, and leadership roles have been aspirational for students and workers. Business schools have been advising us to show our bosses “the management tail” (the upper end of the normal distribution curve of job performance) for career progression. High-schools had been in the habit of promoting leadership opportunities (i.e. head student, sports captains, prefects) and the successes of high-flyers.
The idea of its primacy is built into almost everything we do in management. What if we have it wrong? What if – as Nestlé once famously imagined a scenario where chocolate disappeared from the face of the earth – leadership is a dud concept?
Initially, researchers believed leaders to be born with traits; sophisticated companies would seek evidence of leadership skills from previous roles and/or test for those traits during recruitment. It then became understood that those behaviours could be taught and perfected. This field of academia and consulting practice grew into a huge industry, continuing to reinforce our views of the importance of leadership and what it looks like.
We should then expect Macau’s universities to be keen to promote student outcomes in terms of leadership development because ‘leadership potential’ is a highly sought attribute.
In fact, what we find in vision and mission statements across UMAC, IFT, MPI, MUST, USJ and City U is that only UMAC and IFT make any reference to leadership as a student outcome: UMAC’s mission is in “Cultivating responsible citizens and leaders of high caliber who possess sound moral judgment and the ability of independent thinking necessary to meet the needs of development of Macao and the region”, and IFT’s mission – somewhat understandably narrower given the institution’s vocational focus – says “it will equip students with professional knowledge and technical competence in preparation for their future leadership responsibilities in the industry”. Of the total verbiage of their mission/vision statements, UMAC dedicates 32% to student outcomes, and IFT 17%.
MPI (31%), City U (44%) and MUST (27%) all dedicate a similar amount of space to how they see their students develop. MPI and City U are more focused on the students’ abilities to serve the community, talking of “nurturing talent”, “lofty ideals, noble character”, and “willingness to serve”. MUST is more prosaic in its aims to cultivate various talents. USJ, the one institution that says it adheres to “humanitarian and humanistic values”, spends just 5% of its mission statement directed at student outcomes: they seek “the development of autonomous and creative thinkers”.
So, what has happened to leadership? Could all the hype about leadership be a western, or even a singularly American, value imposed upon cultures, global communities and even upon segments of western societies that we have swallowed without due introspection? We may be seeing the concept of an extroverted, highly competitive saviour – however outdated that conceptualisation of a leader may be – is being pushed aside for a quieter sort of valuable human capital: of people who serve their communities and organisations in ways more instinctive and preferred by the more introverted, quieter thinkers and doers.
Soon we will be learning the art of the follower; someone who is committed to “purpose, principle or person outside themselves”. By valuing followers, what we are more likely to see emerge are the real leaders; those committed to a cause, rather than power or stature.