When we think of the meaning of leadership we think first of a group role or type of person, our ideal of the great leader. We might envisage a famous CEO or a larger than life leader like Martin Luther King or Winston Churchill.
We shift to thinking only secondarily of a set of skills or behaviors. When we think of salesmanship we might visualize a person in a role, such as a car salesperson, a real estate agent or retail sales associate. But we just as readily focus on the skillset associated with selling and acknowledge that everyone can sell something to someone occasionally.
We take a similar view of seamanship. While we might conjure up an image of a professional sailor we grant that anyone who can paddle a canoe without tipping over demonstrates some seamanship. Leadership also has its skillset but, for some reason, it is much more strongly associated with being a certain type person in a role.
Leading, Conducting and Selling
It makes sense to talk of a team of sales people, but not of a team of leaders for the obvious reason that teams have only one leader. The same is true of orchestra conductors. How confusing would it be to have to follow two conductors? Perhaps impossible. Wherever we see a group of conductors, we assume they must be getting together for a meeting. The same is true of leaders. A group of leaders suggests a conference because groups tend to have only one leader. A ship can have several teams of sailors but only one captain. It thus seems nonsensical to entertain the idea that a group might have mulitple leaders.
When people call for a greater dispersal of leadership, they are acknowledging the fact that large organizations are made up of many subgroups, each of which has a leader. Where the formal leader is absent, the idea of dispersed leadership means that a team member could be the team's informal leader. But, advocates of dispersed leadership are not suggesting that lower level employees could show leadership to the whole organization.
This is the CEO's territory. It is not a matter of the CEO being a control freak or having a big ego. There is the practical problem of how an organization could pursue opposite directions at the same time – just as impossible as it is for an orchestra. Even if an attempt were made to follow two conductors simultaneously, it would be very stressful for the musicians. What if the conductors disagreed? How would an individual musician feel about following one conductor, thereby becoming alienated from the other?
There is a crucial difference between CEOs and orchestra conductors, however. During a musical performance, the conductor and the orchestra are totally focused on only one objective: to produce the best possible performance of a particular piece of music. At such a time, any single distraction, such as having to pay attention to a second conductor, is one distraction too many. CEOs, however, have countless objectives to pursue at any given moment.
Large organizations have hundreds of processes and dozens of products. This fact opens the door to a fracturing of leadership into multiple parts – either to say that each separate product and process has its own leader, or more radical still, that any employee could show some leadership, as a one-off act, on any given product or process. This option shifts us away from role-based leadership altogether to the idea that leadership could simply be an act, an one-off act of influence at a given point in time, that could be shown by employees who have no ability or interest to be even an informal leader, let alone a formal one.
Having said all this, we are still left with the conviction that the CEO must be seen as the person to call the shots with respect to the really large-scale strategic issues, those that affect the entire organization. Yes, individual employees can lead even the entire organization on bits of the whole, but only the CEO has the right to rule on the big picture. The CEO is again much like the orchestra conductor if for no other reason than the fact that no organization can pursue opposite directions at the same time.
Is Leadership a Decision Making Activity?
There is no getting away from the fact that organizations need to be unified on fundamental strategic direction, as far as possible. When there is disagreement about direction, the CEO's responsibility is to cast the deciding vote. It is possible, however, to view such decision making, with its associated authority and responsibility, as managerial territory, having nothing to do with leadership.
We could say that leaders promote new directions through informal influence, while managers, like investors, make decisions about resource allocation. From this point of view, conductors are also managers, not leaders. They make decisions about what piece of music to play and how to play it. They also coordinate the input of each member of the orchestra to produce a single, unified output.
This move might seem counter-intuitive but it has the benefit of paving the way for viewing leadership as a one-off act of influence and moving away from our role-based conception. So, when front line knowledge workers influence the CEO to change direction, they have demonstrated an instance of bottom-up leadership. Yes, it is still the CEO's decision whether to buy the influence attempt, but this is true for all forms of influence. A buyer always has the power to decide not to buy and might do so regardless of how persuasive the sales person might be. Just as we wouldn't view a buyer of, say a used car, as a leader for having that authority, there is no reaon to label the CEO's decision making actions as leadership.
Serial versus Simultaneous Leadership
No one can do any one thing and the opposite at the same time, or even buy one idea and its opposite at the same time. But we can shift from one task or idea to another in serial fashion. The same is true of all forms of influence. Take selling. We cannot buy and not buy the same item at the same time, but we can go back and forth between the ideas of buying versus not buying.
In a meeting where colleagues debate the best solution to a problem, the leadership shifts from the most persuasive idea to another across several participants. At any moment in time, participants feel themselves leaning toward one solution over another until another participant suggests a better way. So, even when leadership is a short-lived impact by one person on the group, we have serial leadership.
The bottom-line is that a CEO's decisions about the strategic direction of an organization are only conceivable as leadership if we are committed to the idea that the meaning of leadership is somehow bound up with occupying the top role in an organization. But this is precisely what the conventional view of leadership holds – that leadership does in fact entail the making of fundamental directional decisions by the person in charge. When the leader decides to enter a new market, for example, the group is taken in a new direction. That is what leadership means, according to conventional wisdom.
The only way to account for bottom-up leadership is to say that ALL leadership does nothing more than show the way for others. Everything else is management, including all decisions made by those in charge for any part of the organization.