In most aspects of human activity, the pendulum of fashion swings back and forth between extremes, passing briefly through the point of balance on every swing.
For a while, we were told leadership was all about setting clear objectives and holding people accountable. Then the pendulum swung away to focus on "soft" leadership skills, such as empowerment, coaching and mentoring.
Of course, the reality is both are necessary. But that's usually too subtle a message for snake-oil salesmen and management gurus. It doesn't easily lead to saleable products or training events. I've never found a consulting firm recommending free common sense as a solution, when they can offer expensive (and usually more simplistic) techniques.
Give Me Something To Work With Here!
A lot of management fashion is a load of hogwash mixed with overblown, twisted dogma.
Take empowerment. It's simple common sense to give people authority they need to do the job they're paid for. If you surround them with scores of petty, bureaucratic rules, you'll prevent them from doing their job and increase your costs at the same time.
You can't argue with the sense of this. Yet empowerment has been inflated into the latest in a long line of management panaceas, with books, courses, video tapes and the usual commercial circus.
Managers need training in empowerment as much as they need training in washing their hands after using the bathroom. They don't need techniques, they just need to do it.
Forget the armies of commercially-inspired consultants. Empowerment is a simple idea anyone can understand -- and most did until it was converted into a set of techniques and theories.
What Do People Really Need?
Tell them what to do, make sure they understand, give them the means to do it and get out of their way.
The leader's job is to make sure people have what they need to do the job they're paid to do. That can be demanding of character and intelligence. But since neither of these qualities can be commercialized and sold to the gullible for thousands of dollars, there's no market.
If you're a leader, lead. Never be afraid to do it. It's your job. If you don't lead, you have no use or purpose -- and no amount of business school jargon will change that either.
Adrian W. Savage writes for people who want help with the daily dilemmas they face at work. He has contributed more than 25 articles to leading British and American publications and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The Chicago Tribune.
Visit his blog on the ups and downs of business life.