I just returned from a conference about building strong businesses. The speaker said that leaders make or break businesses—and that everything else is just detail.

Boy, did that hit me as wrong. I've worked at companies with smart, charismatic leaders who have run a good idea right into the ground. A leader without a sound strategy is like a guide without a compass, a ship without a rudder or whatever other clichéd metaphor you like. There's a reason we have so many expressions for the impact of bad leadership—nearly all of us experience it and know how very painful it can be.

Everyone is talking about leadership. About teamwork. About people. Amazon.com hosted a "back to business" sale recently, and it pushed titles like The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a ader: Becoming the Person Others Will Want to Follow and The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. Business schools are offering classes like "Interpersonal Dynamics" and " Principle Centered Leadership." There is a whole industry being built around "leadership development."

But I worry that leadership is being championed as a panacea—or an excuse to ignore the question of how to build products customers are willing to pay for.

Leadership is worthless without a plan. Several years ago, I was on the executive team of a high-profile company. We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on leadership development. We had a smart, charismatic, highly successful CEO and an equally impressive and charismatic COO.

But everyone knew the real problem. There were two different strategies for building our business, and they were in direct conflict. Without a single plan—one path that everyone understands and believes will lead to success—leadership is irrelevant.

Here's another example. An online retailer with an admired leader at the helm tried to grow too fast without first taking the time to prove his concept in small markets. Anyone looking carefully at the historical data and planned growth would have seen that the money would run out before the profits would trickle in—but no one was looking at the data. Everyone was looking at the leader.

You can have great people communicating effectively, with high morale, following a leader right into failure. They'll all feel happy and empowered and excited to be working together toward a great vision, but the Kool-Aid may kill them.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Robbie Kellman Baxter is president of consulting firm Peninsula Strategies (www.peninsulastrategies.com).