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Is Leadership a Role?

Rapid change, complexity and the rising importance of creative thinking are all conspiring to demand leadership from every employee. We are in a new era driven by Richard Florida's creative class and Daniel Pink's "whole new mind," where right brained innovative thinking trumps its sequential left brained counterpart.

To understand how leadership can be shown by creative class types who may have no executive potential, we need to see how they can show leadership without being leaders. The more dynamic the situation, the more that leadership becomes a brief one-off act that can come from any direction: down, up, sideways or even outside the organization. The concept of a stable leadership role, the top position in a static hierarchy, is becoming a dinosaur.

Anxiety caused by rapid change drives us to hold onto any form of stability. As a result, we focus on the statics of leadership: what sort of person it takes to occupy a certain role. But roles are fixed elements in stable structures. A dynamic world needs to shift its vision of leadership to something equally dynamic. If leadership is no longer a role, then we need to see how it can be shown as a one-off act in a dynamic, fluid context.

The Core Meaning of Leadership

Providing direction has always been central to the meaning of leadership and how it contributes to group success. Hence the importance of vision. Whether we view leadership as emanating from a single person at the top of a hierarchy or as emerging on a one-off basis from elsewhere, providing direction is what leadership has always done.

However, the very idea of being a leader is in crisis. Complexity and rapid change are making it harder and harder for those at the top to provide direction. But rather than deny that executives are leaders, we moved the goal posts by inventing post-heroic leadership. Executives are now facilitators who draw ideas for new directions out of their teams. Such leadership has been rightly called "paradoxical" because it suggests "leading by not leading."1

We are thus faced with two choices: either we change the definition of leadership to preserve the status quo that the person in charge of the group is the leader or we retain the idea that leadership provides direction but accept that those at the top can only show leadership occasionally. The second option entails sharing the leadership stage with every group member or outsider who promotes a new direction on any issue.

Unfortunately, switching from being a leader to showing leadership faces a huge obstacle: we are deeply committed to the idea that leaders occupy key roles in groups.

Being a Leader

Strong biological and psychological forces make it hard to shake off the notion that leaders are in charge of groups. Biologically, we share with higher animals a propensity to form hierarchies with one dominant individual at the top. Psychologically, our vision of an ideal leader parallels our image of an ideal parent.

The pop psychology theory called transactional analysis distinguishes between critical and nurturing parents. The former controls, disciplines and punishes us while the latter liberates, supports and nurtures us. It is no accident that we differentiate management from leadership along the same lines: management is the critical parent, leadership the nurturing one. Both parenting styles are paternalistic, thus prone to fostering dependency. Research on leadership often asks followers to describe the sort of leader they would like to follow. The results of this research would be much the same if the question were about one's ideal parent.

In practice, being a leader and showing leadership are inextricably mixed in together. Separating them by studying a CEO is like trying to determine whether a sole proprietor is selling or marketing when talking to customers.

To see the difference, consider an example, a pure case of being a leader. Suppose you are the Chief of an ancient tribe with no enemies and no shortage of food nearby. As the Chief, you resolve internal disputes but you are largely a figurehead. That is, you don't lead your tribe anywhere. Kouzes and Posner say that all their thinking about leadership is based on the metaphor of a journey. This is consistent with the idea of providing direction. A leader for Kouzes and Posner takes a group on a journey with a vision and other enabling actions.

But you, as Chief of a very stable tribe, do not lead anyone on a journey. That is, you don't achieve anything through your group. You are simply their leader even though nothing happens or changes. Psychoanalysts tell us that groups need such a figurehead.  Without one they become disoriented and anxious. This is why it is a major challenge to abandon the security of such group leadership.

This story has two messages:

  1. Being a leader, a role occupant, is the foundation of all our thinking about leadership despite the modern emphasis on showing leadership in the context of guiding a group through organizational change. We thus find it difficult to shift completely to the more dynamic idea of showing leadership because our deeper image of leaders as heads of groups is always lurking below the surface.
  2. It is conceivable that the notion of being a leader really only applies to simple, stable groups while breaking down in more dynamic contexts.  It may be like Newtonian mechanics, which works well enough for apples falling out of trees but not for more complex situations that can only be explained by modern physics.

Why Change is Unavoidable

Not many modern organizations are as stable as our ancient tribe. Some public sector or local community organizations might be relatively unchanging but most commercial businesses are running hard just to keep up with rapid change and complexity.

  1. Thanks to extreme competitive pressure there is confusion and anxiety in all modern businesses, so having a strong CEO provides little emotional relief to employees. The pressure to produce quickly makes CEOs nervous and their anxiety is contagious. They know that they have little time to deliver. But it is no surprise that leaders continually disappoint us. No leaders can soothe our anxieties in the face of so much uncertainty.
  2. Rising education, democratic government and increasing human rights protection have made people less dependent on those in charge. The recent movement called "postmodernism" is a rejection of authority in all its forms. Employees working in today's organizations must be encouraged to empower themselves. Excessive dependency on those in charge is disengaging. People need to think for themselves to live up to their full creative potential.
  3. Innovation is now the most critical success factor underpinning business success. Efficient execution was all that mattered a short time ago, but it is no  longer enough. Here is the crux of the matter: the urgency that businesses feel to innovate faster is actually a thirst for new directions that no one executive can now provide
  4. Close in importance to innovation is employee engagement. Innovative knowledge workers, Richard Florida's creative class, are no longer engaged by a condescending pat on the back for a job well done. They want to make a real difference through the use of their core skill set: their ability to think creatively to devise and promote new organizational directions. In paternalistic cultures, such contributions are disparaged as "suggestion box" material for the "real leaders" to decide upon. But employee ideas can be seen, in a more liberating way, as attempts to show leadership bottom-up (without being a leader).

Showing Leadership

There are many ways of showing leadership without being a leader, that is without being in charge of those who follow:

  • A newly hired customer service associate serves customers to a much higher standard, inducing colleagues to follow suit. This is leading by  example even if the new employee has neither the talent nor the interest to be a team leader, even informally.
  • Leading by example, in general, does not entail being in charge of those who follow. Market leading companies show leadership to their competitors without being in charge of them. Companies around the globe followed the lead of GE when Jack Welch introduced ground breaking initiatives like workout.
  • Outsiders show leadership to organizations by promoting a better way from the sidelines. Martin Luther King, Jr. showed leadership to the general population and the U.S. government when his speeches led to changes in the law. He was neither a member of, nor a leader within, any part of the U.S government. People today still follow his example when, upon reading about him, they stand up for their convictions. Thus it is possible to follow a dead leader, but clearly he cannot be a reassuring figurehead within an organization now that he is no longer with us.
  • Whenever you win an argument in a meeting, you have shown leadership to your colleagues. Their acceptance of your proposal constitutes following your lead even if they wouldn't recognize you as the team's informal leader.

Leadership is shown whenever people are induced to follow. Leadership shown is an influence process, unlike being a leader which means being a type of person or occupying a certain role. All influence works in the same way. Selling is not leadership: it is self-interested, leadership is not. However, there is no sale until someone buys, only a sales attempt. Similarly, a leadership attempt becomes leadership only when prospective followers get on board. Also, like selling, leadership comes to an end once acceptance is won.

CEOs show leadership by promoting a new vision as did Lou Gerstner at IBM when he saw the need to move from hardware to services and Andy Grove at Intel when he saw the need to move from memory chips to microprocessors. They showed leadership while also being leaders but they didn't need to keep promoting their vision after everyone bought the need to change.

Because leadership can be shown by outsiders or bottom up where those showing it are not involved in execution, implementation of a new direction is a separate phase. By thus splitting off implementation, it can be done by the same person or someone else. This separation gives us the key to differentiating leadership from management. The upshot of this move is that much of what people in charge of groups do is management, not leadership.

Leadership in Static versus Dynamic Groups

The shift from being a leader to showing leadership is most apparent in dynamic groups: businesses that change rapidly through incessant innovation. In this context, the notion of being a leader is dangerously debilitating. CEO's of such businesses can show some leadership but so can innovative knowledge workers on a similar one-off, occasional basis. On the other hand, the older notion of being a leader might hang on indefinitely in less dynamic groups. In small groups like street gangs or public sector organizations, including politics, the person in charge will likely continue to be seen as the leader even if no actual leadership is shown.

Throughout the ages we have had leaders who headed up groups. Historically, we learned about leadership in small groups as we still do in families. But what makes us so sure that we can extrapolate that model of leadership to large, dynamic businesses that change constantly through incessant innovation? However much we may long for that one special person to look up to who can soothe our anxieties, the truth is that modern CEOs cannot meet the needs that a small group leader can provide. They may serve as a figurehead, like the British monarchy,  but they can't lead the way in the face of so much complexity and rapid change. Yes, they can offer a vision, but this is often no more than a vague motherhood statement.

We can't really turn to any one person for leadership. We can only hope that the leadership we need in complex organizations emerges in time to keep us abreast of our competition. Such leadership is like creativity in that it can't be willed or controlled. It can only arise when someone somewhere sees a better way. In Isaac Newton's day we couldn't have imagined needing a more sophisticated theory but then we weren't aware of more dynamic contexts. Similarly, we can't assume that what is actually a biologically primitive concept of leadership is still valid in situations other than simple groups. At the very least, we need to explore how leadership might evolve in more dynamic contexts where it might not be a role at all, where the whole focus on roles is misplaced altogether.

Leadership as Input versus Output

Because we think of leadership as occupying a role, we ask what sort of person it takes to fill such a role. This is an input focus, consistent with an effort to paint a static picture. It is reminiscent of the manufacturing mindset where we decide what to make without first finding out what customers want to buy. Conversely, an output focus has no interest in this question because no answer can tell us what it takes to move specific followers.

As soon as we switch our focus to the output side of the equation, we are faced with messy ambiguity, constant change and the unexpected. This is because followers, like customers, are fickle. Not only do they differ at any given time, but they change their minds.  From this vantage point it is clear that leadership is much more dynamic than is suggested by focusing on what it means to be a leader. Leadership is whatever has a certain impact on prospective followers. The same is true in sales. There is no magic, universal formula for ensuring a sale other than making the effort to find whatever it takes to move a particular customer.

In short, the notion that leadership is a role is inextricably linked to the question of what it takes to fill such a role. When we switch to a more dynamic focus, this question disappears.

Because the notion of being a leader is so ingrained, however, there is a huge challenge for organizations to change their cultures in order to encourage all employees to show leadership occasionally. They must do so to beat their competition through faster innovation and better employee engagement.

  1. ''An Organic Approach to Management’‘, Roger Lewin and Girute Regine, Ernst and Young’s Perspectives in Business Innovation, No: 4, pp 19 - 26, January 200.

See alsoLeadership and Management as Functions and No Leaders, No Managers.

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