image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThere’s a lot of happy talk in books, on blogs and in articles about leaders and leading. From revisionist histories of yesterday’s great CEO warriors to the feel-good advice that is so eagerly consumed by the masses of workers yearning for liberation from the tyranny of lousy managers and cubicle kingdoms, there’s no shortage of opinions on how to get this act and role of leading right. I applaud the efforts, but I decry much of the advice—it lacks the critical connection to reality that we need to get leadership right in an era rightly characterized by “overload, ambiguity and conflict.”

Much of the writing and commentary on leadership and leading reads like a Made-for-TV script with much of the gory and dirty content left out and the outcome predictable—the good guys always win. It’s disconnected from reality. Other content offers quick fixes, dispensed in “Top Ten Ideas…” lists. And yes, in over 1,100 articles, I’m guilty of some of this scripting. I believe in the goodness of the words and ideas, much as I know the authors and speakers offering their guidance for the seemingly profound lack of leadership in our organizations and in our world, believe in their own words. But, we (myself included) must infuse this talk with clear, dispassionate clinical context of this damnably difficult world.

I do think that we the people—the consumers of leadership are waking up to the need for something real and substantive, much like Britain woke up to the naïve idealism of Neville Chamberlin spouting the achievement of, “Peace for our time,” with Germany in late, 1938. The resolve and work of Churchill (particularly in cultivating FDR as an ally) was needed to save Britain and perhaps the world from an unthinkable fate.

As consumers, we’re left in a quandary as to whether we trust a sitting president’s leadership in a world that grows more dangerous by the day. (We would have this issue with any leader, but there’s a creeping sense today of dissonance in the people about the situation and the perspective and subsequent actions.) The surge of a businessman and reality t.v. personality in the other party is in my opinion a commentary on people’s hunger for someone who they perceive will be both strong and protective. The rhetoric is powerful and it feeds the emotions, but it’s not entirely rational.

Interestingly, one of the top selling new books on leadership, Leadership B.S.—Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, takes a  stab at the pablum dispensed by the broader leadership complex of authors, consultants, bloggers, trainers and speakers. Pfeffer uses data and studies to debunk the prevailing myths of the leadership peddlers with the effectiveness of a prosecuting attorney building an air-tight case against the defendant. His premise is provocative and spot-on: we need to develop better b.s. detectors around leaders and leadership ideas.

So, how can all of us improve our abilities to evaluate and choose leaders wisely in our firms and in our elected officials? (Yes, this still sounds like a list, but I’ll reform one post at a time!)

Da Vinci suggested that everyone should look at issues from three perspectives: your own, an alternative and one other. In a world that is highly polarized, just taking the time to ask deep questions about your own gut views and those of others—striving to understand the core premises of ideas and approaches is a good starting point. Blind loyalty for loyalty’s sake yields mediocrity at best and invites evil to the table at worst.

Demand straight talk from those in leadership roles or from those who aspire to leadership. Turn up your b.s. detector and when it’s triggered, trust your gut and ask for clarity. A humbling moment for me in a leadership role occurred after describing a new strategic direction, a bold employee stood up and said, “I didn’t understand a single thing you just said.” Thank goodness he had the courage to speak up.

Quit expecting those in leadership roles to have all of the answers. They don’t, but they need to be remarkable at working with others to find the answers. We falsely expect our corporate and political leaders to operate on super-orbital plane where the answers are clear to them while foggy to us. Yes, on rare occasions, we run into a human operating on a seemingly elevated plane of thinking (Da Vinci, Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, some of the great inventors), but mostly they are very human and very fallible individuals. They need our help. Give it. Constructively.

Enforce accountability. The failure to lead—the failure to solve the problems must be met with the cold hand of rejection. Solve problems and improve conditions and you are retained.

Choose leaders that fit the situation. In many workplaces today, teams select the individual best suited to lead in the particular situation. It’s neither birthright, seniority or title, but a fitness for use. The individual serves and then reverts to a contributor role. The team members understand they are consumers of leadership, and they match the skills and abilities to the challenges in front of them, offer their support and then move on. This temporary, fitness for use merits additional exploration in all walks of our lives and firms.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I’m envisioning a “Consumer Reports” style grading of leaders and leadership ideas, completed with ratings for categories such as: results, predicted reliability, willingness to buy again, effectiveness in tough circumstances, propensity to offer straight talk and the ever important, backs words with actions. Now, more than ever, we need to improve our ability to select and support and guide the right people. Whether we’re talking about the futures of our firms or the safety of our citizens, it’s time for a revolution in leadership consumerism.

See more posts in the Leadership Caffeine™ series.

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.