The Liturgy of Leadership

So in case you haven’t heard, here in Massachusetts we are reeling from a scandal in our Justice Department. One single person in the state’s police drug lab has, for want of a better word, gone crazy. For the past nine years she has been making stuff up. None of the people who were managing this person seemed to notice that anything was wrong, and now the state is on the hook for tens, and perhaps hundreds, of millions of dollars in the need for retrials and potentially huge civil damages.  Not to mention innocent people possibly being imprisoned.

So of course, the inevitable question is, “how could this have happened?” Well, I think I have an answer.

Over the past, what, say, 20 years or more, we as a society have invested millions, and probably billions, of dollars in management and leadership training.   And yet… and yet… amazingly, truly boneheaded stuff like this rogue lab technician continues to vex us. This says nothing of the recent financial calamities. These problems are all traceable to management missteps.  This, despite all this management training.

So here’s the question: after all these billions of dollars being spent on leadership and management training, how can his be happening?

One problem is, it is easy to get hypnotized by “The Liturgy of Leadership.”

Merriam-Webster defines “liturgy” as “a customary repertoire of ideas, phrases, or observances.” And whenever you hear people talking about management and leadership, all too often it lacks specificity, and simply refers to things like “passion,” “integrity,” “talent,” “intelligence,” “greatness,” and “excellence.”  These are wonderful words.  Very compelling.  Trouble is, they don’t have a truly specific meaning.

If you really want to be a leader and get stuff done, you have to do more than just recite the standard liturgy of leadership.  You also have to be vigilant.  You have to occasionally be cynical about human nature– your own included.  You have to make trouble. You have to come up with unusual solutions. You have to depart from the conventional wisdom.  And this is not part of the liturgy of leadership.  Trouble is, this aspect of it doesn’t sell very well.  It’s not sexy.  And being cynical is not politically expedient.

Had anyone at that police drug lab bothered to say, “are we maintaining proper cross checks, and just generally allowing for human fallibility in our systems of managerial oversight, or are we just assuming that everything will go fine if we don’t rock the boat?”

This is the great danger of liturgy of leadership.  It can make you feel very safe and righteous, putting you right to sleep in the middle of a meltdown.

© Justin Locke

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