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Who Needs Advanced Leaders?

When we got fed up with managers in the 1980s we replaced them with leaders. Now that our patience is wearing thin with so-so leaders, maybe we need to replace them with “advanced” leaders. Or is this idea just so much hype?

Rosabeth Moss Kantor calls for “advanced” leaders in an HBR blog on February 22, 2011 where she says that: “Increasingly, leaders want not just to run an organization effectively, but to change the surrounding system as well.” Further: “advanced leaders dance to their own tune. They find opportunities for change in the cracks in the system, in the white space where nothing is written.” In other words, “advanced” leaders are change agents.

But why should we see such leadership as “advanced.” Is this not just REAL leadership? Was this not what Martin Luther King was doing? He challenged the status quo with regard to the treatment of African Americans, risking his life to promote change.

Perhaps the label “advanced” stems from our increasing disillusionment with everyday leaders. But this is déjá vu. Didn’t we call for leaders in the 1980s to rescue us from ineffective managers? Are we impossible to satisfy or do we just have an incomplete understanding of leadership?

Thanks to the success of the Japanese in the west, starting in the late 1970’s, we began to see managers as stifling innovation so we called for their replacement by leaders. This is when the transformational leadership bandwagon took off. Bernard Bass was one of the primary developers of this leadership model. His major book was subtitled: “Performance Beyond Expectations” showing that the focus of the transformational leader was higher levels of employee performance, precisely what managers were supposed to achieve.

Thus the new leaders were really just managers on steroids, doing the same work as managers only better, or so we liked to think. Many could not even achieve that and were simply managers who called themselves leaders. This movement might have been foreseen as a recipe for eventual disillusionment, but it wasn’t.

Real leadership is what Martin Luther King was doing: calling for change by attacking the status quo with the courage to risk his life.

Not many executives are willing to show this kind of leadership. Leadership that calls for radical change is more likely to come from younger employees at an early stage in their careers. Front-line innovators are at a more rebellious stage in their lives and they often feel that they have little to lose. By contrast mid to senior level executives are often, if not exclusively, at a more conservative stage in their lives, they have an allegiance to the status quo and, most importantly, they often see themselves as having more to lose than to gain by going out on a limb and criticizing the way things are done around here.

The higher up they get, the more visible and vulnerable executives feel, thus the more motivated they are to hang onto power. Any criticism they level at their superiors is threatening and it tends to be stifled quickly. Vulnerability increases with power as does the tendency to guard against threats. This is inevitable as long as power is based on having the answers, appearing to know what to do. Such a heroic mindset is directly linked to the fear of being wrong, hence why dissent must be stifled.

However, part of the problem is that leadership is misconceived as having what it takes to gain and hold onto positions of power. Until we change how we view leadership, we will be stuck with a clash between the need for change and the drive to hold onto power.

What is Leadership Anyway?

Look again at Rosabeth Moss Kantor’s words. She says: “Increasingly, leaders want not just to run an organization effectively…” This is the heart of the problem, thinking that leadership could ever mean just running an organization effectively. To think this way confirms that leaders, as conventionally conceived, are just managers on steroids.  Was Martin Luther King a leader because he ran an organization effectively? No, he was a leader because he risked his life to call for change. He spoke up for a cause that was dear to his heart.

Notice that Martin Luther King was not a change agent in the sense of managing the implementation of change. No, he simply promoted change from the sidelines, as an outsider. This shows that the essential feature of his leadership was the impact he had on the way people thought and acted. It was not a matter of getting anything done through a team of people. Thus the essence of leadership is promoting a new direction, showing others a better way either by example or by direct advocacy.

So, we don’t need “advanced” leaders; we just need to develop a clearer grasp of what leadership really means. If we agree that Martin Luther King was a paradigm case of leadership, what lessons can we learn from him about the meaning of leadership?

Was Martin Luther King a great leader because of the way he dealt with people reporting to him, because of the results he achieved through people? No, his leadership was that of an outsider. He had a leadership impact on the general population and various levels of government, including the Supreme Court. His leadership efforts were successful when the latter responded to his protests against segregation on buses by outlawing this practice. He didn’t sit down with legislators to foster a shared solution either. Rather, he spoke over their heads to anyone who would listen. His leadership was pure influence, nothing to do with any form of positional authority or with running an organization.

Rosabeth Moss Kantor tells us that “advanced” leaders want to change the system. But, surely this is what true leadership must really mean; we don’t need to call it “advanced,” unless we are saddled with a concept of leadership that confuses it with management. We need to recognize that running an organization effectively is a management task and that leadership is only shown when a new direction is promoted, that is when people follow the new proposal.


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