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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Leadership Consulting: Stances on Scholarship

As the field of leadership consulting continues to proliferate, fringe-elements have developed that risk taking down the credibility of the field itself as well as its more solid practitioners. In this essay, my objective is to make those practitioners aware of the damage to their field (and indirectly to their own practices) that is being committed on the periphery. Relatedly, my task extends to making scholars of leadership aware of how leadership itself is being undermined as a concept used (and abused) in the business world. I contend that maintaining the distinction between consulting (including writing on it) and scholarship is in everyone’s interest, even if some “coaches” believe they have a momentary interest in blurring the lines for personal gain.

Taking a practitioner's experience, which is quite valuable in its own right as praxis, as tantamount to scholarship involves a rather basic category mistake. Treating an academic literature as if it were merely another opinion among those of practitioners is also a category mistake. For example, practitioners who view the academic literature on business leadership as "one of the many perspectives that make up the puzzle" attempt to reduce theory or the results of empirical research to opinion, as if the strictures of research methodology were mere dross. A category mistake is also made when one treats non-scholarship as if it were scholarship simply on the basis of being “actionable.” This includes conflating a "how to" book with a theory or the results of an empirical study.

I am not claiming that every (or even most) practitioners commit such category mistakes. Nor am I contending that scholars are the only people with knowledge; rather, scholars are in the business of formulating knowledge under fixed rules of reason and methodology and then passing it on to the benefit of practitioners. I am merely contending that the roles are distinct, even if some practitioners (and scholars) may blur them.

If scholarship is indeed the same as anecdotal experience or opinion--both being "perspectives" or knowledge--the accumulated knowledge is essentially relegated, not to mention disrespected. While Thornton may be a fantastic consultant, she does not have the educational credential necessary for her to function as and be recognized as a scholar. I want to emphasize that I am not disvaluing the work that she or other consultants do. In my view, they provide valuable services to managers and even entire companies. My point is merely that, as I'm sure more practitioners know, consulting experience is not the same as expertise in the study and knowledge of leadership.

The bottom line is perhaps that the accumulation of knowledge on leadership is difficult enough. A "new age"-like democratization of the formulation of what counts as knowledge, whereby every leader and consultant deems himself or herself to be an expert on the knowledge of leadership without an advanced degree on the subject, dilutes what counts as knowledge and misleads people who take the opinion as fact. That is, conflating opinion with knowledge is apt to increase undetected fallacies and errors exponentially (not to mention result in perpetually reinventing the wheel) because the "rules" established and followed by scholars in accumulating knowledge are not necessarily followed. Users assume they are, and are thus mislead when the rules are not followed because they are not known.

Therefore, I recommend that practitioners, whether leaders or consultants, take great care in utilizing the academic literature of leadership. Does the author have a doctorate, meaning a terminal degree that includes comprehensive exams graded by an academic faculty and a successfully defended dissertation (e.g., Ph.D., DBA, DSciM, JSD, or EdD)? Does the text look solid academically, with citations or end-notes and a healthy bibliography including articles in academic journals, or is the book essentially a "how to" book with bullet-points and "feel good" potential-sounding platitudes? My point is that there is A LOT of daylight between these two types of books on leadership; they should certainly not be conflated. Doing so puts the user at risk for relying on something stated as if it had survived analytical or empirical methodology when it had not.

To be sure, "how to" books with lists and inspirational platitudes may serve a viable purpose for some practitioners (including those who write them). This hypothesis could be tested empirically by a social scientist careful to distinguish positive correlation from causation. My point is that this purpose is different than that which is satisfied by the knowledge on leadership formulated and vetted by scholars. By its very nature, ratiocination and its accompanied research methodology live at some distance from praxis, even where the analytical beam is focused on an applied concept. You have a taste of this distance right here if you are thinking ratio what? Ironically, the best knowledge is accrued by scholars who do not conflate what they are with what they are studying. In the scholars’ world, “actionable” does not trump or eclipse, much less expunge theory and empirical results.


There are undoubtedly many practitioners who appreciate having access to knowledge that has been vetted by scholars; such knowledge on leadership can indeed be useful, whether to a leader or a consultant. Sadly, I must admit that I have encountered some consultants who seem content to vaunt their own "actionable" opinion over academic knowledge even on leadership, and still other consultants who seem to treat what they advocate as if it too constituted scholarly-derived and vetted knowledge. It is in the interest of the consulting sector to disgorge itself of such fallacies because 1) a leadership consultant’s practice can benefit from scholarship on leadership and 2) credibility is a valuable commodity for consultants. The last label a “coach” wants applied to him or her is “snake oil salesman or saleswoman.” By drawing on the academic literature, a consultant can distinguish himself or herself from the “coaches” who sell platitudes. In other words, distinguishing scholarship (even on applied concepts) from praxis is in the interest of consultants who want the field of consulting gain credibility and their own practice appreciate in value.