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Leadership in A Postmodern Age

In an age of escalating uncertainty, the idea that leadership means being in charge of a group is obsolete. Rapid change and innovation require a less static, hierarchical concept of leadership. Wherever success depends on a diversity of ideas, leadership becomes fragmented into discrete impacts, no longer an ongoing role.

Being in charge of a group means having the authority to call the shots which, in turn, requires knowing what needs to be done. But a vision is only possible if the leader knows where the group should go. As uncertainty rises, we turn increasingly to the "wisdom of the crowd" for leadership. The power of knowledge, now fragmented, resides in diversity rather than in the individual sage. Leadership is radically dispersed wherever complexity reigns.

When leadership emerges in a crowd, it is not about one person rising to the top but rather a hundred voices each having small, one-off impacts on the crowd's ultimate decision. This is postmodernism: no ultimate authorities, fragmentation, everyone's voice gets a hearing.

Why bother? Businesses that need innovation to survive defeat themselves by positioning leadership as a top-down function. This fosters dependency and stifles the creative thinking of knowledge workers with the potential to show leadership bottom-up. Such leadership is not about taking charge of one's boss. Rather, it simply means influencing a change in direction. Implementation, a separate step, can be managed by those in charge.

Leadership's evolving purpose

The purpose of leadership is evolving through a number of phases. The first two can be called Model T and Model A after Henry Ford's first two successful cars. These derogatory labels reflect the primitive nature of conventional leadership, bearing in mind that all higher animals form themselves into hierarchies. In the first three phases, the leader is a person in charge of a group. In the fourth phase, occasional acts of leadership can emerge bottom-up, top-down or even from outside the group altogether and be shown by groups to other groups. It is no longer about an individual being in charge. A brief leadership act does not mean temporarily taking charge but simply influencing others to adopt a better way.

  1. Model T: Individual in charge maximizes performance - getting work done through people.
  2. Model A: Individual in charge initiates and manages change.
  3. Modern: Individual in charge facilitates new thinking.
  4. Postmodern: Leadership as pure influence emerges from multiple, unexpected sources.

1. Model T: Maximizing performance

When business was relatively static, before the Japanese success of the 1970s, execution was to the fore; innovation was not so paramount. The purpose of leadership at this stage was to motivate employees and coordinate their performance. The idea that leadership was an influence process meant that the leader influenced subordinates to perform at superior levels. Groups normally had only one leader and leadership was top-down. Theories on leadership style from the 1960s with their endless debates over whether to focus on the task or people were all about how the individual in charge might best maximize employee performance.

2. Model A: Initiating and managing change

John Kotter was instrumental in carving out a new concept of leadership in the 1980s, one that focused on initiating and managing change. The Japanese invasion starting in the late 1970s ushered in an era of massive organizational change. The main focus of leadership switched from performance management to inspiring a journey of change. An example would be Intel's move from making computer chips to microprocessors. Orchestrating performance could now be seen as a management responsibility.

Both Model T and Model A leadership revolved around the authority of the person in charge who knew what to do and promoted it with a vision. Uncertainty was suppressed or did not exist. Any sign of uncertainty in a leader suggested an absence of leadership.

3. Modern: The leader as facilitator

The level 5 leadership of Jim Collins, a major departure from earlier models, is an attempt to face rising uncertainty. The vaunted humility of the level 5 leader originates from the stark realization that no single executive can know it all. Level 5 leaders face reality: the fact that they can no longer provide direction without getting input from diverse sources, hence the slogan: "first who, then what." This is a profound change from the level 4 leader who, subscribing to "first what, then who," knew what do to and only needed people to execute the vision.

Modern, facilitative leadership has a foot solidly in Henry Ford's camp, being a last ditch attempt to save the status quo idea that leadership means being in charge of a group. This model also has a foot in the postmodern camp as it welcomes ideas for new directions from anywhere. To make the move fully to postmodern leadership we need to recognize that drawing ideas out of others is facilitation, not leadership. Being a facilitator is an critical role for those in charge to play, but a facilitator is a facilitator, not a leader.

4. Postmodern: Multiple, diverse and discrete impacts

Postmodern leadership has always been around on the sidelines, living a sort of outlier existence. We have simply ignored it because of our fixation on leadership conceived as being in charge. The essence of postmodern leadership is challenging the status quo to promote a better way as did the Sony employee who convinced his bosses to develop PlayStation. He had the courage to challenge the status quo notion that Sony could not make toys. Such leadership takes the same form as that of Martin Luther King Jr. when he challenged segregation on buses.

It is crucial to see that Martin Luther King Jr's leadership and that which is shown bottom-up comes from outside the groups that are led. King had a leadership impact on the U.S. government and Supreme Court as an outsider to these organizations. The bottom-up leader has an impact on the senior executive team without being either a member of that team or taking charge of it, even informally.

Examples of discrete leadership acts

  • Martin Luther King Jr. had a leadership impact on the U.S. government and Supreme Court by directly promoting a change in direction, such as ending segregation on buses.
  • Leadership is shown bottom-up to the senior management teams by any employee who advocates a change to products, services or processes.
  • Green leaders who promote environment-friendly policies show leadership to communities around the globe when the latter implement the suggested policies.
  • GE's push to be number one or two in each of its markets showed leadership by example to other companies when they tried to achieve the same goal.
  • Apple shows leadership by example to its competitors.
  • In collaborative interactions such as brainstorming or the creation of open source software, each suggestion that moves the group in a new direction is a discrete leadership act.

All but the last example are instances of leadership shown by outsiders. The reason for highlighting them is simply because, in these contexts, it is indisputable that the person or group showing leadership is not in charge of those who follow. Their leadership is pure influence, nothing else. Such leadership can be defined as showing the way for others either by example or by directly advocating a better way.

Distinctive features of postmodern leadership

  1. Can emerge from anywhere, inside or outside the group that is led.
  2. Is a discrete act, not an ongoing role.
  3. Is an influence process that ends once followers act.
  4. Does not manage people or make decisions for them.
  5. Can be shown by groups to other groups, not just by individuals.
  6. Fluid, not dominating, as no one has a monopoly on good ideas.

We now need to elaborate on each of these distinctive features.

1. Emerges from anywhere

Postmodern leadership is based on some form of knowledge or insight, like thought leadership, that one person or group either adopts first to lead by example or advocates to others. Leadership has always been based on power. Now it is the power of knowledge rather than that of position or personality. It is an influence process where what is influenced is a change in direction, not necessarily performance improvement.

2. Discrete leadership acts, not roles

Leadership that is a one-off act is a discrete event, not a role.  This must be the case if it can be shown by outsiders who have no role in the follower group. When groups lead other groups by setting an example, as does a market leader, the former is clearly not in charge of the latter. This is not unusual. Influence is generally a discrete event. Such leadership can emerge from unexpected directions. For example, in a meeting, a normally quiet team member might feel sufficiently passionate about a particular topic to speak up and persuade the others to change their minds on the issue under discussion. But, being shy, this individual might have no interest or talent to take charge of the group or to be regarded as even its informal leader in a role-based sense.

3. Leadership ends once followers act

A car salesman doesn't keep selling to you once you sign on the dotted line and you don't keep trying to influence your children to eat their vegetables once they start eating them. Similarly a CEO doesn't keep promoting a new vision once it is accepted and acted on. Influence is only ongoing for Model T leadership with its need to continuously motivate employees to maintain standards of performance. In Model A leadership, with its focus on change, the manager might need to show leadership as a series of discrete acts to maintain momentum until the change is fully implemented. Being a discrete act, such leadership is not an ongoing role.

4. Does not manage people or decide for them

When Martin Luther King, Jr. influenced the US Supreme Court to outlaw segregation on buses, he was not involved in implementing anything. He didn't convene a group of legislators to agree changes. Rather, he spoke over their heads directly to the population at large. Similarly, when the Sony employee succeeded in persuading Sony management to develop PlayStation, he may not have had anything to do with implementation. Many knowledge workers who show  leadership bottom-up may not have either the motivation or the talent to be a conventional positional leader. We need to upgrade management, making it a supportive, facilitative function, to take care of execution.

If leadership is pure influence and can be shown by outsiders then it can't make decisions for followers. This means that there is no such thing as autocratic leadership. Only a person in charge can be autocratic, but this person is a manager, not a leader. Managers can occasionally show leadership but there are no leadership roles.

5. Can be shown by groups

Positional leadership is about individuals occupying the top slot in a hierarchy. But groups such as companies and sports teams lead their competitors by example. They influence them to change direction or strive for higher levels of performance. Greenpeace can have a leadership impact on communities by advocating environment friendly actions. Groups can lead by going somewhere new first thus leading other groups to follow or by promoting a better way.

There are benefits of highlighting such group leadership: (1) To confirm that leadership is not just an individual matter, (2) To add weight to the claim that leadership can be shown by outsiders and (3) To make the case that being in charge of a group is only a special case of leadership, not the whole story. Moreover, leadership between competing groups is clearly not a collaborative effort to achieve a joint goal. Nor is it even intentional. Patents are a  means of preventing competitors from following too closely.

6. Fluidity

Conventional leadership is about one person dominating a group for as long as possible. But in a knowledge driven world, no individual has a monopoly on good ideas. In a brainstorming team, leadership can shift a hundred times during the discussion and range from very small to large impacts on the group's ultimate decision. Such fluidity is to be celebrated as an asset of postmodern leadership because it gives more people a voice. Not being paternalistic, it doesn't condescendingly label ideas from employees as "suggestion box" material for the "real leaders" to decide upon. Any suggestion that moves the group forward, even slightly, is a discrete leadership act.

Content is king

Conventional leadership is about the person in charge. This is why so much of our talk about leadership focuses on character and self-awareness. Content takes a back seat to personality. But innovation is a war of ideas where content has moved to the fore. This is why we can adopt new ideas regardless of their origin. The same is true of sales. We can buy a product on e-Bay without caring about the seller's character as long as it is delivered and meets our quality expectations.

It is not that character is unimportant. Anyone with any responsibility, even a lighthouse keeper, needs to be trustworthy. We can't stop doing due diligence on CEO candidates. Being a CEO is a very broad role. Leadership is only one thing they do; it is not who they are.

Why upset the status quo?

We are so fixated on the person in charge when we think about leadership that changing this mindset is a huge mountain to climb. But the world has changed. Industrial era concepts of leadership worked well enough in a static world but have no survival value in a fast-changing, complex era. As business is increasingly populated with knowledge workers (Richard Florida's "creative class") they want a say, not just to blindly follow one individual.

To stimulate faster innovation and fully engage innovative knowledge workers, we need to face the reality that they are the real leaders, not those in charge. The latter are managers, executives, stewards, facilitators or catalysts. We need to reframe how we see their role and stop calling them leaders. They can SHOW leadership occasionally but they need to stop pretending to BE leaders.

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


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