Our efforts to explain leadership are like the proverbial blind men trying to understand an elephant by merely feeling its trunk. Our grasp of leadership is just as narrowly limited to what it means to occupy an executive role or be in charge of a group.
If we gain a fuller understanding of elephants by standing back to look at the whole beast, what do we see when we take a broader view of leadership?
Well, there is market leadership. Teams show leadership in sports, both during a game and by leading a league. Apple shows leadership to whole industries including software, music and mobile phones.
The Anomaly of Leading by Example
Companies and sports teams lead by example. So did Jack Welch and GE with novel ideas such as workout and the requirement to be number one or two in a market. When businesses around the globe followed suit, GE was leading by example.
Within organizations, leading by example is much more pervasive than is realized, given how rarely we talk about it. The cliché "actions speak louder than words" proves that we follow the example people set regardless of what they advocate.
Leading by example is an overlooked anomaly for conventional leadership. To be a leader in the conventional sense means being in charge of a group either formally or informally. It means directing the efforts of the group toward a goal. It takes the group on a journey to use the metaphor popular with Kouzes & Posner in The Leadership Challenge.
But all employees can lead by example. A new customer service employee with higher standards might show leadership to new colleagues simply by doing a better job without even realizing it. Employees with no talent or desire to be team leaders can lead by example just by carrying out their duties in an exemplary manner.
Conventional leaders have a vision - a goal worth pursuing. Normally, this means consciously having such a vision and promoting it with conviction.
But when employees lead by example, without being aware of so doing, they neither have a vision nor articulate one. Leading by example doesn't necessarily take followers on a journey. It could simply influence them to think differently or approach their work in a new way.
In his landmark book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn showed that prevailing paradigms usually have a few anomalies that they ignore because they can't explain them. Leading by example, whether within or across organizations, is just such an anomaly for conventional leadership theory. It is leadership but it doesn't fit the standard pattern.
A New Definition of Leadership
Leadership can be defined in general terms as simply showing the way for others. This includes leading by example both within and across organizations. Showing the way for others also occurs through explicit advocacy of a new direction.
When CEOs promote a new vision, they are advocating a better way. When green leaders such as Al Gore advocate green actions they are showing leadership to groups around the world without being a member, let alone in charge, of them.
To develop a broad definition of leadership, it is critical to see how it can be shown across group boundaries, by outsiders in effect. Companies leading by example fit this description. So does the leadership of Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela who each had a leadership impact on their respective governments from the vantage point of outsiders.
When King spoke out against segregation on buses, he had a leadership impact on the U.S. government which led the Supreme Court to outlaw the practice. This had nothing to do with King's being in a leadership role within the government or Supreme Court.
What of Being in Charge?
A general theory shows that being in charge is only a special case of leadership, an application or part, not the whole elephant. The most crucially important implication of extra-group leadership is that it is not a role. Thus it must be a discrete act.
When a company in Asia decides to follow Jack Welch's lead by supporting only those divisions that are number one or two in their markets, this is an event, a discrete act of following an equally one-off act of leading. Jack Welch is not in a leadership role, even informally, with respect to this follower.
Actually, extra-group leadership can be shown across time as well as space. This explains how we can follow dead leaders. When present day activists follow Gandhi's example of non-violent protests, they have followed his lead despite his being long dead. Because leadership is in the eye of the beholder, followers decide whether to follow regardless of the intent of leaders, their location or even if they are alive.
Benefits of Leadership Generalized
By reframing leadership as a discrete act of influence, it becomes clear that even people in executive roles only show leadership occasionally. They are not leaders by virtue of being effective in their roles. There is nothing strange about this shift in perspective. Other forms of influence, such as selling, also occur as discrete, role-independent acts. Sales people are only selling when persuading customers to buy.
Crucially, leadership so defined can be shown by any employee as an occasional act without the slightest inclination or talent to take charge of a group, even informally.
Dispersed Leadership: Old Wine in New Bottles?
So-called dispersed leadership, "leaderful" organizations or shared leadership is really just old wine in new bottles. These seemingly new ideas are nothing more than a repackaging of what we have long called informal leadership, taking informal charge of a team temporarily. Informal leadership is just as much a role as its formal counterpart. Both organize and coordinate a group's efforts to achieve a goal.
Showing the way for others is leadership truly dispersed because it does not require being in charge of anyone even informally. A new direction can be promoted with implementation left to those who buy the idea.
Equally critically, if leadership in general merely means showing the way for others, then we need to completely recast what anyone in a leadership role is doing when not actively showing leadership. A broader concept of leadership gives us the key to finally and clearly differentiate leadership from management.
To make this shift, however, we need to upgrade management to be a facilitative, supportive, developmental and coaching function, thus ridding it of its current negative image as a mechanical controlling force in organizations.
Why it Matters
The status quo is determined to maintain the myth that only people in charge can show leadership even if it means taking the desperate measure of moving the goal posts, abandoning the core meaning of providing direction and shifting leadership to facilitative mode. The latter is an effective way to operate but it needs to be seen for what it is: a good management technique.
The status quo, however, is getting in the way of full employee engagement. In a war of ideas, businesses urgently need all the ideas they can get for new directions. As long as leadership is conceived as a top down force, then employees are resigned to being passengers on the bus.
But when leadership is divorced from position, then any employee with a better idea can show leadership by promoting it sideways to colleagues and upwards to management. By showing leadership, employees can achieve a much higher level of engagement. They achieve a greater stake in the enterprise by taking on more ownership for its direction, even if only at the level of their own teams.
Our Elephant Trunk Fixation
If it's so easy to step back and view the whole elephant, why do we remain fixated on its trunk? It says more about us than about the meaning of leadership. We have such an obsessive need for heroes to inspire and take care of us that we are blind to any form of leadership not shown by people in charge. But until we see how disempowering this fixation is, we won't reap the full benefits of what leadership can offer us. Businesses that fail to take advantage of the leadership potential in all employees risk going the way of the dinosaurs.
See also: Leadership and Management Reinvented.