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“Why Leaders Cannot Lead”

Book Review by Dr. Matin Royeen

Leadership is an art and a science.  A successful leader uses knowledge, experience and mentoring in creative ways to fashion a vision for himself/herself and the followers.  The truth is that a good number of people in leadership positions lack the necessary skills to have an impact on the followers and accomplish goals.  Two important ingredients of leadership involve influence and effectiveness.

In his seminal book “Why leaders can’t lead”, published in 1989, the late Warren Bennis, a distinguished scholar and researcher on leadership and management, discusses some important points he learned as a practitioner in this field. As President of the University of Cincinnati 1971-1976 and subsequent years of research, Bennis has made interesting observations about leadership and management.  

I was working on my Ph.D. in the mid 1970s at the University of Cincinnati and had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Bennis by attending some of his didactic lectures/ discussions about leadership in higher education.  I am happy to share a few important points of the book with those in leadership positions in Afghanistan.  Also, it is my hope that the aspiring young men and women working in different settings will have the opportunity to engage in a constructive discourse on the dynamics of leadership among different Afghan circles.  

During his first year of presidency at the University of Cincinnati, Bennis faced a moment of truth at 4 am, when he was still dealing with an incredible amount of paperwork and requests in his office.  Exhausted and overwhelmed by the stack of 150 letters on his desk, he suggested “either I cannot manage this place, or it is unmanageable.”  Reflecting on his responsibilities as president of a university and what a president should and should not do, he confronted his leadership shortcoming. This was a moment of confession for this president who found himself to be the victim of an “unconscious conspiracy” within, that prevented him to serve as agent of change for which he was hired at the university.  From this experience, Bennis made the following two observations.  

First, “Routine work drives out non-routine work and smothers to death all creative planning.” In order to address the routine problems it was important to recruit a group of diverse competent executive professionals who can deal with the routine problems/requests much better than the president.  This provides the opportunity for the president to serve as a “Conceptualist” or the idea man that could have a positive impact on the future of the institution.

Bennis’ second observation, “make whatever grand plans you will, you may be sure the unexpected or the trivial will disturb and disrupt them.”  Bennis emphasized the priority of the president to lead not manage.  Many institutions are well managed and poorly lead, according to Bennis.  It is so easy for the leader to spend countless hours focusing on routine instead of focusing on top priorities that affect the fate of the institution. “Leaders do the right thing and managers do things right.”  According to Bennis, people in top positions often do the wrong things well.  

After leaving the university, Bennis spent five years working on his leadership book, interviewing about 60 corporate leaders throughout the United States.  These leaders had left a big mark not only by virtue of their visions that attracted others, but also were able to” communicate an extraordinary commitment.”  In his conversations with these leaders, Dr. Bennis made the following observations about leadership competence:

  1. A leader should be able to manage attention through vision for achieving defined outcomes and goals.
  2. A leader should be able to manage meaning by clarifying, articulating and sharing dreams with others in order to align them to his/her cause.
  3. A leader should be able to manage trust by being reliable and adhering to the same ethics regardless of the circumstances.  Whether the constituents like it or not, they understand where the leader stands on principles.
  4. A leader should be able to manage self by knowing his/her skills and effectively developing them.

Bennis also believes empowerment can be felt in any organization with effective leadership.  Empowerment is the collective effort of leadership which gives pace and energy to the organization.  Empowerment is more evident in four domains, according to Bennis.

  • People feel that whatever they do to the organization is meaningful and significant. 
  • Leaders value learning and competency by leaving no room for failure but permitting mistakes as feedback tools.
  • There is a sense of community and belonging regardless of individual differences.  Leadership is synonymous with team, unity and community.
  • Work is stimulating, exciting and challenging.  A true leader pull people together in pursuit of an exciting vision of the future

Another important topic discussed in the book is the importance of virtue where leaders must display high moral standards and courage in their daily activities.  Bennis consider the following virtues to be important humane qualities.

  • Integrity: A leader’s conduct should be based on moral and intellectual honesty.
  • Dedication: A leader should have a passionate belief in the work he does.
  • Magnanimity:  A leader should possess noble qualities of mind and heart beyond his/her own ego,” generous in forgiving above revenge and resentment.”
  • Humility:  A true leader does not feel that he/she is more important than others.  A leader with humility accepts valid criticism without resentment because this person has a healthy ego.
  • Openness:  A leader should be open to new ideas and listen to others without preconceived prejudices.
  • Creativity:  A leader should be able to transcend the traditional ways of doing business by engaging in meaningful new ideas.

Reflecting on some important points of this book, I would like to make the following statements about leadership.

  • A good leader should be able to distinguish between the two roles as either the manager of the routine or the leader of a vision.
  • Competence involves knowledge, skills and attitude.  One can easily increase knowledge and develop good skills.  Attitude is more difficult to change because it involves mental realignment, emotional maturity and psychological stability.   A good leader is aware of both strengths and weaknesses and forms a Diverse Executive Team that would build on strengths and compensate for weaknesses.  A good leader shall never become the victim of group -think.
  • A good leader never loses focus.  He/she shares dreams with others and invites them to join in piloting the ship of collective destiny together.
  • Empowerment is mutually inclusive between the leader and the followers.  It provides synergy for both in the organizations.
  • Character, integrity and humility constitute the basic humane pillars of a good leader in any society.  Under current circumstances, the Afghans crave leaders with such moral qualities. 

The Challenges of Leadership in Afghanistan:  These thoughts on leadership are the product of the research and observations made in ordinary circumstances within the American cultural context. As I reflect about daily challenges facing the citizens and leaders in different spheres of life in Afghanistan, it is difficult to imagine how leaders should effectively traverse through the turbulent waves of life under extraordinary circumstances.   Nevertheless, I believe it is important for the Afghan youths and the media to have an honest discussion about what qualities/attributes they value in their current leaders in different work settings, and how successfully these leaders have delivered in achieving goals.

Similarly, it would be very important for such successful leaders to celebrate their achievements with the public and have the courage to state shortcomings as well.  Such transparency can strengthen the relationship between leaders and the citizens.   

This kind of openness will show character, integrity and humility in the part of leaders which can result in reconciliation and unity of purpose among the Afghan citizens.

Dr. Matin Royeen is an Afghan American educator who is living in Chicago, Illinois.  He can be reached at amroyeen@gmail.com

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