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The Content of Leadership

Leadership is always ABOUT something: values, strategy, politics, markets or technology; it has content. It advocates a better way on a particular issue. But the role of content is obscured by our obsession with the character of the person in charge.

Style thus looms much larger than content. Because those in charge have vast power over us, we naturally need to trust them. But this has the disastrous effect of obscuring the leadership of front-line employees with great content but limited interpersonal skills. They are all content and no style.

To fully engage key knowledge workers and generate faster innovation, we need to see how they can show leadership with compelling content even if they lack the style required to be positional leaders.

Exploring how groups lead other groups highlights the place of content. Businesses lead their competitors in a market, sports teams lead their leagues and countries lead other countries by example on the economy, green policies or social issues, among other issues. Similarly, in a single organization, high performing divisions or teams show leadership to their colleagues. Demonstrating “best practice” is a form of group leadership. Because we persist in concentrating on individuals in charge of groups, we ignore the leadership shown by groups to other groups.

In fact, so fixated are we on the individual in charge that we regard group leadership as odd or irrelevant. But we can learn a lot about leadership by examining how groups lead other groups.

Much of group leadership is shown by example, but not exclusively. Greenpeace might show leadership through vocal influence by, for instance, persuading Japan to stop hunting whales. But companies and sports teams lead their competitors by example only. They never use intentional influence because they aim to win, not to take others with them. They show leadership BY winning, not by trying to persuade others to follow them. Indeed, through patents and subterfuge, they strive to prevent competitors from following too closely. Even high performing company divisions may resent losing the limelight by sharing best practice with lower performing peers.

Groups lead by WHAT they are doing, by getting somewhere first or performing at a higher level than others. Apple, for instance, leads with products that consumers find more appealing than competitor offerings. Here, content is surely king!

Group leadership illustrates the core of what it means to lead: to show the way, which is often best achieved by going somewhere first. Companies lead by being first to develop a new product or process. GE had a leadership impact on other businesses with processes like workout.

Conversely, CEOs can’t go anywhere without the help of their groups. CEOs are like ship captains because they need a crew to run the ship. A ship captain can’t lead the way by going somewhere first because the ship can’t move without the crew. Thus, the crew doesn’t follow the captain; they travel to the destination together.  But, you object, the crew follows the captain’s orders. Not really. “Following” in this context is just shorthand for saying that the crew obeys the captain’s orders. That is, you can’t literally “follow” an order. You can execute it or ignore it, but you can only follow a person who is going somewhere ahead of you.

The key point here is that we recognize an essential connection between leading and following but we overlook the fact that we can only literally follow someone who goes somewhere first and that group leadership illustrates this principle better than does the person in charge. Leading by example thus captures the real essence of leadership and shows why content is more important than we realize.

The Place of Content and Style

Leadership is never totally content-free, just a matter of style or hype. Conversely, compelling content alone is rarely sufficient. Businesses like Apple lead, not just through attractive WHATS, but also with appealing HOWS: packaging and marketing. The relative power of content depends on how engaging it is on its own, whether it can sell itself, or whether people need persuading to buy it.

Our receptivity to new ideas ranges from stubborn resistance through neutral to an insatiable drive to be a first adapter of everything new. Some people will never agree to permit abortion, for example, while others are ultra quick to jump on the latest bandwagon whenever any new technology arrives.

Trying to lead others to give up their stance on abortion is nearly impossible. Wherever an issue involves deeply entrenched human values, leaders need to have the oratorical brilliance of a Martin Luther King. In this case, style is at least as vital as content.

In technical domains, however, content comes into its own, especially if prospective followers are opportunists. Naturally, we admire leaders who tackle value-laden topics as Martin Luther King did because he had to risk his life to challenge the status quo. Still, a product developer who promotes a new product also challenges the status quo even though the risk is low because the content, let’s assume, virtually sells itself.

The point here is that, it is in technical domains where front-line innovators can show leadership. It is not that influencing skills or emotional intelligence do not apply in this context, but rather that it is POSSIBLE to show leadership without such wherever content is compelling or where a hard, factual case is enough to get followers on board. Such employees may have a leadership impact, bottom-up, even if they lack the character and other qualities necessary to be a positional leader.

Content and the Meaning of Leadership

Leadership between groups is not about individuals in charge, let alone their style or character. Groups lead other groups by going somewhere new first or being better than their competitors. Group leadership not only demonstrates the role of content, it tells us something vitally important about the meaning of leadership.

Leadership is shown by one group to another by outsiders. It does not entail a joint effort between leader and led to pursue a shared goal. Such leadership simply shows the way for others where those who are led literally follow the leader.

Martin Luther King was also an outsider relative to the general population and the government. The only difference between his leadership and that of a group is that he promoted a better way while groups lead by example.

Similarly, when front line knowledge workers convince senior management to adopt a new product, they are outsiders to the senior management team. Such leadership doesn’t mean employees taking charge of senior management, even informally. So, there are two forms of outsider leadership: that shown by groups to other groups and that shown by individual outsiders who challenge the status quo.

Now, we have two choices:

  1. We can say that we need two concepts of leadership, one to cover individuals in charge of groups and one to account for outsider leadership. 
  2. We can adopt one concept of leadership but define it so as to cover both cases.

The first option is messy, but because we ignore outsider leadership we fool ourselves into believing that being in charge of others is all there is to leadership. But, taking the second option, we can define leadership broadly as showing the way for others, either by example or by the explicit promotion of a new direction, a better way. CEOs show leadership when they advocate a new vision, but only then because most of the time, they operate as managers.

Benefits of a Broader Definition of Leadership

  1. A general concept of leadership covers a much wider range of situations, including leadership shown by CEOs and that shown by groups: businesses, sports teams, countries or high performing units within single organizations.
  2. We gain an account of leadership shown by outsiders such as Martin Luther King and front line innovators who show leadership bottom-up. 
  3. By portraying innovative knowledge workers as leaders, we can better engage them and motivate them to innovate more. 
  4. We gain clarity about the relative roles of leadership and management, thus allowing a sharper focus on what it takes to succeed in executive positions. 
  5. Management upgraded resumes its rightful partnership with leadership instead of being relegated to a minor, negative role.

Implications of Leadership Redefined

The major implication of defining leadership as showing the way for others is that most of what executives do needs to be reframed as management, suitably upgraded. Specifically, leadership itself can’t make decisions for anyone or get work done through people. Outsiders can only lead by influencing others to behave differently; they have no power to decide anything. An outsider can’t implement anything either, so this must be the province of management. If we want a definition of leadership that covers outsiders, then we must exclude the making of decisions for followers, thus leadership can only influence.

Encouraging Young, Aspiring Leaders

Developing young leaders by focusing on style puts the proverbial cart before the horse, especially for innovation-driven businesses where content is king.

Inspiring leaders are passionate about something. Indeed, it is arguable that passion outweighs all other leadership traits. Without passion, how can anyone hope to lead, even with all the character and emotional intelligence in the world? Form without substance is empty.

Aspiring leaders should be encouraged to find ideas that they feel passionate about first and foremost. With passion and compelling content, all employees can show leadership on a particular issue immediately without having to wait to be promoted to a leadership role or first acquiring better influencing skills.

Putting the cart before the horse means telling young employees that they need to develop interpersonal skills or character before they can lead. Daniel Goleman said that maturity was another word for emotional intelligence, meaning that young people must grow up before they can be leaders. How empowering is that?

Why Content is King

Content comes to the fore when leadership is dynamic, when providing direction is more important than merely dominating the group. The chief of a primitive tribe, for example, strives to maintain a static position of power over the group. A chief is regarded as a leader even if the tribe is going nowhere and nothing is being achieved through them.

Conversely, leadership in modern business is dynamic; it is totally goal-oriented. Vision rises to prominence because dynamic groups are constantly on the move, seeking a better way. They aggressively pursue their chosen destination, determined to get there ahead of others.

In dynamic contexts, direction is central to leadership. Regardless of what other qualities leaders possess or lack, the ability to provide direction in a complex, fast changing context is what matters most.

Why Content Will Eclipse Form

Despite the rising importance of content, we insist on retaining our primitive role-based image of leadership.  We want one individual to take charge, someone we can look up to, who can protect us, give meaning to our lives AND provide direction in fast-changing times. But, so great is our obsession with form: the character of the person we want to take charge, that we downplay content. Our need for one person to look up to, however natural, distorts the meaning of leadership, which we will only fully understand when we can separate our needs from the true function of leadership: to provide direction.

As the world becomes ever more knowledge-driven and as evidence-based decision-making becomes more valued, content will eclipse form or style. This is liberating because it means that all employees can show some leadership on a local, small-scale issue, as a one-off effort, even if they have no talent or interest in positional leadership.

See alsoLeadership in a Postmodern Age, The Leader as Activist and Creative Class Leadership.

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