The Underbelly of Leadership

By Peter Block

The strength of the leadership idea is its expression of initiative and accountability. The risk is its baggage of dominance and self-centeredness.  The underbelly of leadership is that it does not leave much room for partnership. Too often, we put the right pieces and programs in place, yet the fundamental relationship of parenting leader and dependent organization remain unchanged.

Here is a story to illustrate. The leader is the president of a chemical company; we will call him John and the company Atlantic Chemical.

John took over Atlantic Chemical and initiated its turnaround by creating an empowering, people-oriented environment. He decided that his competitive advantage, in what was essentially a commodity business, was the attitude of his people. His strategy was to

  • flatten the organization by two to four levels, giving everyone more control over what they did;
  • create a participative culture and force the issue with those who did not support a participative style;
  • fully inform people about the business and how it was doing in the industry;
  • implement worker pay systems geared to real outcomes and earnings;
  • eliminate the trappings of privilege; and
  • be clear in defining business outcomes in customer-response terms, both internally and externally.

All of this made sense and worked for the business. He led a struggling company into becoming a profitable business. But somewhere in the midst of this, John began to see himself as more and more central to Atlantic Chemical’s success. Undoubtedly encouraged by others, John began to believe that he knew not only what was best for the business but also the best ways for people to behave. Consultants were brought in to create ways of measuring those behaviors, and questionnaires were used to give feedback on those behaviors. A program called “Managing the Atlantic Way” was used to reinforce John’s vision, and all employees were required to sign up for it. John talked about his vision and behaviors over and over and over again until people got it and believed it. Everyone was appraised each year, measured against whether they were managing the Atlantic Way.

The universal theme in John’s story is that people in charge begin to think that the way to achieve and institutionalize change is to

  • define the behaviors required,
  • view themselves as essential to the change,
  • use education as indoctrination, and
  • redesign the performance appraisals to ensure compliance.

This is the way strategy turns into dogma. This type of leadership too easily focuses ownership at one point. It encourages the replication of one belief system and tends to be very narrow in giving credit for success. Atlantic Chemical’s success became John’s success. The governance at Atlantic Chemical remained one of parenting, even though “Managing the Atlantic Way” featured major segments on the importance of partnership.

Successful leaders like John begin to believe that a key task is to re-create themselves down through the organization. They begin to wonder, “How do I instill in others the same vision and behaviors that have worked for me?” At the moment, the leader may believe this question reflects a sincere desire to be of service, but to an objective observer it has the stamp of self-interest.

What is even more problematic is that Human Resources and the training function begin to participate and endorse this story. In the move toward the stewardship principles and practices that hold the promise of dramatic changes in the governance of our institutions, HR has a major responsibility to take the role of objective observer and put leadership in a modest context where it belongs.



Adapted from Stewardship: Choosing Service over Self-Interest, 2d ed. (San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler, 2013). In the last 25 years, Peter Block’s Designed Learning has trained over 1,000,000 staff professionals worldwide using his highly successful Flawless Consulting™ workshops. To find out how you can bring this valuable training to your company or organization, contact our Brazilian affiliate Jacqueline Resch at (21) 258-8213/Email:  Or, you can contact us in the US at 513-524-2224/Email: