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Is Leadership a Relationship?

It has become popular to define leadership as a relationship. Employees work more closely with managers and there is a growing literature on followership. But this idea is a problem because it rules out leadership shown at a distance and bottom-up.

One way of casting doubt on this idea is to explore the question of whether it is possible to follow a dead leader. At first glance, such a question sounds like a joke. Leaders, like husbands or wives, occupy roles only as long as they are alive. Sometimes, however, strange questions can shed light on complex ideas, like leadership.

A leader is normally a live person in charge of a group. But what about market leadership or a sports team leading a league? Apple shows leadership in computers, music and cell phones without being in charge of companies that follow. Also, these are groups showing leadership not individuals. Do we need a separate concept of leadership for these awkward cases?

So, can we follow a dead leader? Yes, because it is leading by example where people are induced to follow even if they don't report to the leader. Not all leadership occurs within extant groups. This is true of leadership shown bottom-up by employees who promote new products without being members of the senior executive team.

Leading by Example

Market leading companies and league leading teams in sports lead their competitors by example. Employees show leadership by example every day when they behave in an exemplary manner and others follow suit.

Suppose you are a newly hired accountant. You brought some leading edge practices with you to your new job. When your new colleagues adopt your practices, you have shown leadership by example, possibly without even intending it.

Leadership is thus not always conscious or intentional. The cliché "actions speak louder than words" shows that employees follow the example executives set. More leadership is shown by example than we think, given that it is rarely discussed.

Like beauty, leadership is in the eye of the beholder. Oddly, all our ruminations about leadership focus on the input side of the equation: what people must do to show leadership, forgetting that leadership only occurs when people choose to follow. Similarly, a great sales pitch may not sell to a prospect who is in no mood to buy. Just as only buyers can decide what to buy, followers can choose to follow a dead leader's example.

Leading and selling can also occur across great distances. You can sell a product to someone in a distant city on ebay. If a country  implements novel green practices, another might follow suit. Leadership can occur across time as well. If activists, reading about Gandhi, use non-violent protests, has not Gandhi shown leadership by example despite being long dead?

Why Leadership is not a Relationship

We want to reject the possibility of following a dead leader because we see leadership as an active, two-way relationship between leader and led. The desire to call leadership a relationship is well intentioned. The power gap between executives and employees is narrowing. Knowledge workers need a bigger say in organizational direction to feel engaged. Also, executives no longer know enough to provide all the direction required by rapidly evolving businesses.

In addition, heroic leadership is past its sell-by-date. Post-heroic leaders work more closely with their teams to decide new strategies. The recent wave of interest in "followership" is consistent with the theme of partnership between boss and employee.

However, this shift has a negative side effect. It casts in concrete the view that only those in charge of a group can show leadership. The status quo is preserved by changing the meaning of leadership from providing direction to being a facilitator. This rules out bottom-up leadership which means promoting new directions upwards. This is unfortunate because this concept  has the potential to enhance employee engagement and innovation.

A different perspective says that it is really management that works through relationships with employees. Leadership is not a relationship but an act of influence, an impact like a sale.

There are clearly exceptions to leadership-as-relationship. Leading by example between groups  occurs without such a relationship. The same is true of  explicit attempts to lead people by outsiders like Martin Luther King, Jr.  He had a leadership impact on the U.S. Supreme Court as an outsider to this group when they ruled that segregation on buses was unconstitutional.

The leadership-as-relationship camp portrays leaders as facilitating a group to solve problems together. But this is not how Martin Luther King, Jr. showed leadership. His speeches were one-way influence attempts. He did not facilitate meetings with governmental agencies to show leadership to them. He spoke over their heads directly to the general public.

Moreover, the idea that leadership is a relationship is based on a conceptual confusion. Leadership is a relational term in that it cannot occur without followers. But so is eating and drinking. You can't eat or drink without eating or drinking something. This is also true of impact. No impact can occur without an object impacted. Clearly, therefore, a concept can be relational without implying a personal relationship between people.

Actually, influence is also relational in this sense. Influence is in fact a specific type of impact. All objects can be impacted but only people can be influenced. Impacts can occur across time and space. A collision between a large meteorite and earth that occurred millions of years ago could still be having an impact on our planet. The same is true of influence. Reading the works of Homer could influence how you live your life today.

No doubt leadership occurs within groups between people who have a working relationship, but this is only a special case. Because a relationship is not a necessary condition for leadership, we can't define leadership so that it entails such a precondition.

This is critically important for bottom-up leadership. When front line innovators promote a new product, they show leadership bottom-up without taking charge of the senior management team even informally. There simply is no conventional leadership relationship between leader and led in this situation.

Leadership versus Management

To account for leadership shown between groups and bottom-up we can define it as showing the way for others whether by example or direct appeal. Thus leadership shown by the person in charge of a group is only a special case, NOT the defining paradigm. A CEO only shows leadership when promoting a new vision, not just by occupying the top job.

We need to upgrade management to a more nurturing, developmental and engaging function. Everything to do with getting work done through people is thus the domain of management. Leadership is not a role but a pure influence process.

Leadership must work through influence alone if it can be shown by outsiders or bottom-up. This means that all decisions made by executives, even strategic ones, are managerial actions, never leadership.

Management works through an active two-way relationship with employees. Effective managers are good coaches and developers of people. They listen as much as talk to show that they value the input of intelligent knowledge workers.

By contrast, leadership is always a one-way impact, like all forms of influence. It must be so if it can be shown at a distance, across time and by one group to another, especially across competing groups.

Leadership, Innovation and Employee Engagement

Employees are disengaged and not innovating because leadership is portrayed as working exclusively top-down. Businesses are stuck with the old metaphor of the organization-as-person where the "head" thinks and the "hands" implement. This makes employees feel like passengers on the bus.

Real leadership provides direction but this is a problem if it can only flow top-down. We need to see that direction, and thus leadership, can come from anywhere, that it is not the monopoly of those in charge. A massive culture change is thus required to achieve very deep employee engagement and faster innovation.

Yes, we can follow dead leaders, but also any employee with a better idea and the courage to promote it.

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