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The Leadership Vacuum

The Leadership VacuumThe biggest problem with the leadership industry is found within the ranks of those who call themselves leadership advisors. There is nothing short of a voluminous amount of leadership information being published on a daily basis. The number of books, blogs, tweets, videos, webcasts, podcasts, etc., being pushed into the market is reaching truly overwhelming proportions. It’s been my experience that regardless of the subject, it is precisely when the noise becomes the loudest, that it’s most difficult for the consumer to extract quality and value from the market. The text that follows is meant as both a rebuke of my industry, and a challenge to my fellow practitioners…It is my hope that this post stimulates vigorous discussion, and a great deal of thought on how we evolve the practice & discipline of leadership, not for our own glory, but for the good of our clients and society as a whole.

Before I go any further, today’s rant should not be construed as a call for elitism, but rather a call for authenticity, innovation and professionalism. As leadership advisors and coaches we counsel our clients on the need for change and innovation, but have we become the proverbial shoe maker without shoes? We ask our clients “why should anyone be led by you?” but a better question might be “why should anyone be advised by us?” When was the last time you read something new, groundbreaking, or significant with regard to the practice and discipline of leadership? Is it because everything valuable in regard to leadership has already been discovered? I think not…rather I believe that many among us are sadly lacking the innovative approach to our practice that we so consistently demand from our clients.

I believe our world is suffering greatly due to a lack of leadership. Examine any of the major problems of our time and you’ll quickly and clearly see a lack of leadership at the root of the issue. In fact, if you listen carefully you’ll readily hear a loud sucking sound that I refer to as the leadership vacuum. With all of us pushing leadership advice and counsel, why is it that our leaders are failing at such alarming rates? Are we as an industry fulfilling the mission of developing great leaders capable of handling great challenges and accomplishing great things, or are the majority of those entering our ranks just here to make a quick buck?

I would venture to say that there are literally tens of thousands of consultants and coaches who bill themselves as leadership subject matter experts. If you Google “leadership development” more than 4 million search results are returned.  How many of these practitioners are qualified? Who are the real leadership thought leaders? Spare me the slick info-product sales people, and give me authentic, professional practitioners of the art and science of leadership.

I have long believed in eating my own cooking. I simply don’t proffer what I don’t practice. I can’t help clients lead change if my business model is antiquated or static. It is simply not possible to develop leaders if you’re not one yourself. Let’s not create more trumped-up professional credentials to make unqualified practitioners feel better about themselves, but let’s focus on the real issue…being better practitioners of our craft, and delivering real value through actionable advice rendered to our clients.

I’m not interested in more tired rhetoric, but I am sincerely interested in welcoming dialogue with anyone passionate about the profession of leadership. Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

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    Bob Marshall

    May 18, 2010 at 6:24 am


    – Bob



      May 18, 2010 at 2:06 pm

      Thanks Bob…Always appreciate hearing from you…


    Bridget Haymond

    May 18, 2010 at 8:46 am

    Wow, this question/rant is so timely because when dealing with the Internet, the question is how do you ever know? The good news is that if you follow someone on twitter, or read his or her blog regularly, you can usually get a feel for what the person is really about. The bad news is that lots of leaders or companies are in crisis mode when they call for a consultant or coach, so they don’t really have the time necessary to really get to know the person they are hiring. Clearly, word of mouth is the best recommendation and I always tell people to trust their gut.

    In a perfect world I think every professional should have to list his or her children as references to be interviewed by phone because then you will find out the truth. A quick conversation with children (even the very young ones) quickly reveals if their personal life is in alignment with their professional speak and image they put forth. Having said that, the truth always comes out, but often not in time for a company to make a properly informed decision.

    My focus is on the leader as an individual because I truly do believe that we lead from who we are and as much as people like to think they can compartmentalize their lives, it’s simply not true. Values and leadership must take place on a personal level before they can be lived out authentically in a public or professional manner. In practicing what I preach, I would welcome anyone to speak with my 9 and 12 year olds for a personal reference☺

    As always, great food for thought Mike!



      May 18, 2010 at 2:26 pm

      Hi Bridget:

      You bring up two great points:
      1. Having the ability to successfully lead yourself should be a prerequisite for leading others, and;

      2. The best indication of someone's leadership ability is the reflection you see of their character, values and discipline when looking at their children.

      Bridget, I have no doubt that you would do quite well as a result of interviewing your children. Mine are a bit older, but they are absolutely the best of who I am as a person and a leader. They are wonderful people who have made great decisions in their lives and have been a blessing to Jane and I.

      My daughter (@amandawalker7) is happily married, graduated cum laude in 3 years, works full time as a writer for a non-profit, and just completed her first term of her Master's program – she's only 21. My son (@dan_myatt) is also happily married, a University of Virginia graduate, and an EOD officer in the Air Force.

      I couldn't talk about the character of my children without acknowledging my wife of more than 25 years (@janemyatt). None of us would be where we are without the love, support and wisdom Jane provides.


        Bridget Haymond

        May 18, 2010 at 3:55 pm

        As someone who follows your lovely wife on twitter I know how true your words are, and what a blessing she is to many others as well!



          May 18, 2010 at 4:28 pm

          Thanks for your kind words, and I'll pas your comment along to Jane as I know she is a fan of yours as well. Anyone who reads her material will quickly come to find out who the real deep thinker in family is…Thanks Bridget.


    Carla Zilka

    May 18, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    I can't agree more with your comments. It's a shame that so many practitioners call themselves experts, yet have no real results to prove their proof of concepts.

    Having been trained by one of the best companies in the world on Leadership Development, (GE), in one of the best action learning environments in the world (a high performance culture), I frown on textbook practitioners. Unless you've actually been in the shoes of your clients, I don't think you have a right to advise them. When I ran the Talent Management division of a large global consulting firm after I left GE, I realized that these consultants were working from concepts that were academic vs. real life. One such example was a young man who was on my team with a Ph. D from Columbia. When I asked him to do research for me on case studies that proved our concepts in a practical manner, he brought me a textbook and asked me to "define" what I meant by practical, as he was looking up terms I was using and couldn't find them. I fired him from my team realizing he would never understand how to relate to a client on their terms. He had never actually delivered anything to client, he had only written white papers for the firm. And he was considered an expert!

    Textbook jargon and academia is only good if you can translate this into proven actionable results. If you can prove the results, like improved market share, increased employee engagement, increased customer retention, then you have proven you know what you are doing. If you don't have consistent data and results to prove your expertise, and I don't mean one project, but multiple for many years, then don't practice. It just gives the word "leadership consultant" a bad name. Harsh, yes, but practical and real.

    In any event,



      May 18, 2010 at 2:37 pm

      Hi Carla:

      You are spot on that there is no substitute for practical, in the trenches experience. Attempting to advise someone based solely upon academic theory is a very dangerous thing that often does not end well. I agree that it's also extremely difficult to advise someone if you have not walked in their shoes.

      The best analogy I can think of to highlight the value of these points is an obvious yet powerful example from my days in the military. When I was going through basic training, my Drill Instructors were all seasoned, experienced, combat veterans. They had been through everything, survived and were very well equipped to make sure that I would survive as well. I would not have wanted, nor would I probably have survived had my DI's been young and inexperienced. Thanks for your valuable insights Carla…


    Mark Oakes

    May 18, 2010 at 2:57 pm


    As always, exceptional post! Your comments remind me of two distinctly different approaches. Broadly speaking…

    The first leverages the Socratic method of questioning. This approach is often executed in a pre-canned fashion. Consultant training directs the completion of certain skills assessments and a line of questioning that is designed to result in a predictable product; A great leader. Hardened leadership experience isn't mandatory from the consultancy standpoint.

    I liken the other approach to a quote from Sir Isaac Newton… "If I have seen further it is from standing on the shoulders of giants". Some of the best leadership advisors I’ve seen have already been in the trenches, bloodied, bruised and left for dead. They are the ‘shoulders’ on which the leader stands. In the end they learned valuable lessons that help them show leaders where the land mines are buried. There is an unmistakable element of wisdom borne of experience that they gladly share as they ‘mentor’ growth.

    I have several folks that fall into this latter category and I NEVER want them to leave my side.




      May 18, 2010 at 4:24 pm

      The Sir Isaac Newton quote is a wonderful example of the value that can be gleaned from the experience of others…assuming you are wise enough to pay attention:). Mark, you insights always add value and are greatly appreciated.



    May 18, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    Hi Mike,
    Wow. I just found (and promptly posted about) the worst leadership advice I have yet to come across. It was in a letter to the editor and focussed on control, slick lines, and manipulation. It even suggested "integrity" was a buzzword. Advice is great – just be careful where you get it from…

    Landon Creasy

    You have to see this to believe it –http://bit.ly/c0ccX9



      May 18, 2010 at 4:32 pm

      Well said Landon, and thanks for sharing the link.


    Keith Merron

    May 18, 2010 at 6:39 pm

    Hurrah! Well said, Mike. And I wholeheartedly agree. And I wonder am I one of those that you speak about. I've been consulting to leaders for 30 years and believe I am one of those people who have earned the right to guide others. But when I started out, I would be one of those folks you have questioned. And when does one start out, and when does one earn the right to claim he/she knows and embodies that which he/she speaks about? Was it when I wrote my first book on the subject or the third? Or perhaps I still haven't earned it after coaching well over 500 executives. It certainly wasn't when I got my doctorate, but is that a requirement. In a world where anyone can self anoint as an executive coach, it is not clear when one earns the right to be that which they claim. I believe I have, but who knows? And all that you said is absolutely worthy and needs to be spoken.



      May 18, 2010 at 6:56 pm

      Hi Keith:

      You make some great points, and offer some good food for thought as well. Is there really any one true standard or measure for what makes someone a successful leadership advisor? The short answer is yes, but I'll get to that in a moment – But first, I want to be clear that I'm not bashing what can be learned in the classroom. Education is a valuable thing, but it is clearly made more valuable when refined by the wisdom and discernment that comes from real world experience. Is being an author important? Those of us who are published probably tend to place more value on it than we should. While it's certainly a potential indicator of credibility, we've all read enough junk to dispel the notion that merely being published is synonymous with competency. In the final analysis, I guess I can boil it down to this – if you can weave enough competency together, which has been tested by experience and underpinned by character then you have a decent shot at adding value to the client relationship. Great thoughts Keith….


    Anne Perschel

    May 19, 2010 at 12:35 am

    We offer leaders 10,123 (or so) lists of the 8 things, habits, key, competencies they need to succeed. That's a mere 80,984 actions that will without question make each and every one of them the greatest leader ever.
    Perhaps for starters we might stop providing recipes and talk honestly with clients about
    1. the hard work of being a leader
    2. the fact that there is no single recipe or solution but a path on which we can be a guide and fellow journeyman or woman.
    3. our own experiences, wisdom and lessons learned from other leaders



      May 19, 2010 at 1:00 am

      Hi Anne:

      Your three points are sound ones. I've often said that "the only real guarantees that come with a position of leadership are those of hard work and criticism – everything else is gravy." Thanks for sharing Anne.


    anna smith

    May 19, 2010 at 12:49 am

    I took several leadership classes in college, but when I started managing a local Waffle House, practice was much, much harder than theory. How can you be attentive, appreciative and kind to one of your better employees when you just found out that you'll have to work second shift, your tomato prices went up, a third shift cook called in sick and you're out of to-go cups… I find it difficult to switch from one situation to the next with lightening speed… sometimes your body language/tone of voice is still 'caught up' in a previous conversation/situation… I can read over and over again to work on becoming more flexible, gain emotional maturity, listen deeply, value people, etc. And while I might understand that and actively try to implement those techniques – experience still rules. It's the old example; you can hear 100 times that when you open the door, a dog on a chain will try to attack you. But he won't be able to reach you – so you can relax. I bet you $5 that you'll still react… (until you've opened that door a few times…)



      May 19, 2010 at 1:07 am

      Nothing like a little OJT to demonstrate that it's only through the experience of practice and repetition that actions & reactions become instinctual. You simply cannot attain this level of precision and refinement solely through academic endeavors. Great story Anna…


        anna smith

        May 19, 2010 at 2:28 am

        "[…] it's only through the experience of practice and repetition that actions & reactions become instinctual. You simply cannot attain this level of precision and refinement solely through academic endeavors." – nice!
        You point out that some leadership so-called experts might just be in the industry to make a quick buck. Some leadership expert followers might just be interested in the topic to feel motivated (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc) – not that that's a bad thing… There are also those who are interested in leadership in order to continuously improve processes and study behaviors.
        If there are two kinds of leadership experts, there are two kinds of leadership expert followers.


    Kevin W. Grossman

    May 19, 2010 at 1:14 am

    It's already been said, but if you can't lead self, then you can't lead others, nor can you (or should) advise on leading others.



      May 19, 2010 at 1:30 am

      Worth noting again Kevin…Thanks for weighing-in.


    Mary Jo Asmus

    May 19, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    Mike, I must disagree with your basic premise that leaders are failing at "alarming" rates. Please excuse my boldness, but a definition of failure is needed here as are some statistics about what "alarming" (or the "failure rate") is. Leadership in our complex world is hard. Not every leader can be successful. Our press focuses on what they call the "failures" yet I can't help but wonder that for every "failure" there are dozens of success stories that we don't hear about. My (admittedly unverified and anecdotal opinion) is that there are many, many leaders out there who are doing it well, and whom don't get cited in the press. There are good – even great – leaders out there. We have to look hard, because they are undercover, not because they aren't numerous. But they are there. It behooves us practitioners to hold these people up as wonderful examples of leadership done right. The press isn't going to do it, because (they think) it won't draw readers.



      May 19, 2010 at 4:23 pm

      Hi Mary Jo:

      I always excuse boldness :). Your point about examining the other side of the coin is a fair one. In fact, I would not even attempt to dispute that there are many successful leaders in our midst. That said, there is also little doubt in my mind that failure rates at the C-suite level are at all time highs. While there are many reasons for this, there is no arguing the fact that the average tenure for CEOs has been plummeting for the last decade. The harsh reality is that it is simply more difficult to succeed in today's complex world, and most CEOs would readily admit that. My admonition to practitioners in our field is that we must not become complacent in our efforts to adapt our work to the changing needs of the market. We must continue to stretch ourselves for the benefit of those we serve. Thanks for your candor Mary.


    Ivana Sendecka

    May 19, 2010 at 6:55 pm

    Hi Mike and everyone!
    Thank you for rising this question marks.

    Let me elaborate a bit, from my point of view>>> being a 27 years old person totally passionate about unleashing talents in people, officially without any coaching course or certificate and for last 10 months giving away my gifts to everyone eager to learn for free.

    I believe that being a leader and bringing up new generation of leaders must start very early in life, if we want as society to progress. Leadership courses should not be available only for managers in the company (that is what I have been told when I wanted to attend such trainings during my "employee times"). More over to acquire leadership skills is not about one event, it is a long process.

    Many people perceive that leadership is only for elites and that is for them a mental block in their head: "aaw, don't be silly, you are without any title, you cannot afford to have a coach, it is only for executives." Some coaches became happy with this status quo positioning of their services. High fees style have built more and more brick-walls around them. Same happened to employers and bosses who are afraid to lose their position, are protecting themselves from "disobedient" employees.

    But in this case "disobedient" employees are just asking questions, are eager to learn and to grow, act proactively and are not afraid to fail. Aren't these patterns of innovators? Well, corporate world call them non-compliant.

    If we will not start to lead by example and show real life examples from our lives, how we conquered our fears, how we achieved something what everyone told us it is impossible, how we have failed, we will not convince or inspire anyone.
    If we don't have our own stories, then whole point of what we are trying to teach is just talking…with essential part of walking missing…

    To innovate is to perform-get feedback- and then revise. Repeating same thing over and over could work before, but not know, when everything is viral, online and word is spreading at the speed of light.

    Guys, please try to talk to your clients and try to open their eyes to see the great potential around them. Teach them to encourage pro-activity, teach them to value those who are not afraid to fail and admit it when they do. Teach them, that next generations will not work for them if they will not see the deeper meaning and purpose explained to them.

    I am telling you teach them, because I cannot access executives (at the moment), because they will not listen to a "girl" with no "experience".


    Have a super cool day,
    cheers from Slovakia



      November 17, 2010 at 1:09 pm

      Hi Ivana,

      I enjoyed reading your accounts of executive arrogance. They describe so well my own experiences as well.

      I commend to your reading a book by Bob Sutton, Professor at Stanford University Graduate School of Business, called "The No Asshole Rule". He also has a blog called "Work Matters".

      I wish you the best success and if we can live so as to nullify the destructive effects of just one a**hole in the world, we'll not have lived in vain.



    Kevin Burns

    May 25, 2010 at 9:37 pm


    Great post. Have been preaching about the overabundance of leadership gurus with no certification necessary for over a year now. Truth is, when "everyone" gets on-board a trend, the trend is usually over. And my most recent blog post on the subject points to an informal ratio of 25-1: leadership gurus to management consultants on Twitter alone. That should speak volumes.

    As for your question about why, with so many leadership gurus about, there is a dearth of real leadership? The answer is simple: everyone is talking and no one is listening. Leadership has become nothing more than a badge. Sorry, but you don't become a leader in exchange for money.

    Here's the blog post I was referring toohttp://burnsattitude.wordpress.com/2010/05/17/why

    Kevin Burns
    Management Attitude/Culture Strategist


    Stephen Rafe

    June 5, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    The following may be relevant to the "dearth" issue. It's excerpted from my manuscript in progress for the Leadership Academy of the Barbershop Harmony Society's Middle-Atlantic District.

    [c] Stephen C. Rafe. All Rights Reserved.

    All organizations are different from one another. For-profit organizations differ from non-profit ones. Even within the same field, for-profit leadership needs may differ. In fact, even within for-profit organizations, the need for a certain type of leader may change as situations change.

    The same is true for non-profit organizations that use volunteers. A person who is "volunteered" to serve as a committee chair for a professional or trade association may differ in motivation and enthusiasm from one who has joined an organization and volunteered willingly. Even then, organizations differ from one to another according to their purposes and objectives. Further, even within the same organization, local chapters can have, and do have, the need for different types and styles of leadership based upon the chapter, itself, and what its members want and expect from being members. Thus, the leadership skills needed in any organization are bound to differ from one to the next.

    In the Barbershop Harmony Society, many members feel that there is a dearth of leadership and base that upon declining numbers and difficulty in recruiting and retaining younger members. Yet, the leaders may be there: We just haven't identified and nurtured them yet. Part of the problem may be that potential leaders may, indeed, be incredible leaders in their work situation or elsewhere but choose not to lead in a chapter. Their reasons may include commitment of time, insufficient dedication to the organization's goals, desire for low profile, and many others.

    Of course, it's impossible to "command" them to become leaders at the one extreme, or to "beg" (or "bribe") them to become leaders at the other extreme. External motivational techniques simply don't work that well, if at all or for long, in barbershopping. To cultivate leaders, one must start with those members who have an internal desire to make a difference by contributing to the good and welfare of the group. Others members may never become leaders, in any situation. (Heroes, maybe, but not leaders as we define the word.)

    Teaching one what to do, and even how to do it, doesn't automatically create leaders. The best that training can do is to a) explain what works and doesn't work in general in leading barbershoppers, b) provide those who are willing to lead with insights into what they can do to increase their chapters' chances for success, and then c) help them develop the essential skills. Without that desire, though, understanding and action will rarely follow "training" — even among those who could be what some define as "natural born leaders."



    Stephen Rafe

    June 5, 2010 at 3:50 pm


    The first step toward success in any organization begins with knowing — as an organization — who we are or what we are, how we are, why we are, where we want to go, how we will get there, and when we might expect to get there.

    That's where a members' survey is essential. It addresses the important leadership tenet: Find out what your members (followers) want and help them get it. A simple survey can identify, within barbershop chapters, whether the group is mostly interested in a) socializing or in b) performing at a high level. This tracks the "drives" theory of David McClelland. And it addresses the "Who or what we are" and "How we are?" Analysis of the survey responses will indicate the degree or level of the members' mutual understanding and agreement or commitment. From their input, the chapter's Vision — "Where do we want to go" is made clear.

    Once that is known, the next step — in any organization — is for the leader(s) to keep the Vision in front of the members in every possible way. This reminds the members why they are a part of the organization. The step that follows, then, addresses "How we will get there." It involves team-building — finding the right people and placing them in the right jobs doing the right work. This is the key to a chapter's future because that will drive the Vision forward. For example, the appropriate officer in each post can:

    a. Use what the chapter and chorus know about themselves to identify the kind of people they want to reach as potential members (I.e. High Achievers or Socializers ).
    b. Publicize the group through media and other means that reach those prospects.
    c. Design and conduct Guest Nights that "sell" what the chapter wants those prospects to "buy into."
    d. Develop an audition process that looks at both music and leadership potential to bring in the "right" people.
    e. Find outside engagements that will reach those prospects.
    f. Ensure that every member (old and new) feels welcome, appreciated, and empowered.
    g. Establish mutually acceptable timetables to ensure individual development and more commitment/participation.

    Point "g" of course addresses the final question — "What is our timetable?" And there may be other points to consider and incorporate as you refine the concept further.

    Each of these actions will help to build the enthusiasm and commitment that are essential to success — in both leaders and followers. And today's followers could grow into tomorrow's leaders when they experience that kind of environment. So let's start recruiting the ones who can.

    — end —

    Leadership Advisors | Lead Change Group

    October 30, 2010 at 8:14 pm

    […] 2010 by Mike MyattNote: This post originally appeared on the N2Growth blog May 18 with the title The Leadership Vacuum, but we need to keep the dialogue going.The biggest problem with the leadership industry is found […]



    November 17, 2010 at 8:01 am


    Robert E. Lee said:

    "The forbearing use of power does not only form a touchstone, but the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is a test of a true gentleman. The power which the strong have over the weak, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly — the forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total abstinence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in a plain light. A true man of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others."

    Lee had what John Maxwell calls 'spiritual authority' and the heart of a servant in both victory and defeat. I agree with you that our time desperately needs such men.

    Thanks, as always, for the post. Good stuff!


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