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Four Images of Leadership

Diversity and wise crowds create new ideas. With business now a war of ideas, leadership shifts to the power of the latest idea and is thus fragmented and dispersed across multiple sources. It is no longer a role or type of person, but our need for leaders to be parent figures is blocking this shift in perspective.

Activist, Role Model, Parent and Executive

Our understanding of leadership is confused because it takes many guises, including activist, role model, parent and executive. The last two varieties entail being in charge of people; the first two do not. Most writing about leadership focuses on what it takes to be an executive but this is only one kind of leadership, not the whole story.

If crowds are wiser than individuals, then our love affair with the lone, heroic leader is on the rocks, thanks to escalating complexity and rapid change. A crowd with a good idea is a collection of activists: all those who voice an opinion and influence the direction the crowd takes, even if only momentarily. In this world, the new leaders are activists.

No business can win a war of ideas; it can only gain a fleeting advantage. A better idea confers transient leadership on the idea's promoter in the form of a discrete act of influence not an ongoing role.

1. The Leader as Activist

Activists who use violence to influence people are rightly branded as terrorists even if they are seen as leaders by their followers. But Martin Luther King, Jr, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi were also activists who, by using constructive tactics, were classified as leaders by the world at large. People who campaign to protect the environment are also activist leaders as are employees who convince management to adopt a new product, service or process.

Activists are outsiders with no formal authority to decide anything for those they seek to lead: governments, large organizations and the general population. Thus they can only influence through direct appeals. The "wisdom of crowds"  idea shows that no one person has all the answers thanks to increasing complexity and rapid change.  A crowd is more democratic than a hierarchy; everyone with a view to express can win a hearing, even if only briefly.

With rising education and a business world increasingly dominated by knowledge workers, Richard  Florida's "creative class," many more people have intelligent insights to offer than was the case in the industrial age. Of course everyone with a view deserves to be heard when it comes to political choices but crowds of knowledge workers can best help complex businesses make better decisions.

Being an activist leader means challenging the status quo to promote a better way. Such leaders remain on the sidelines if they lack either the interest or the skills to be an executive leader. Because it is shown by outsiders, activist leadership ends once the intended audience buys the proposed changes, so it has nothing to do with managing people or implementing anything through them.

Complex businesses not only need more activist leaders throughout their ranks, this is the most vital form of leadership wherever complexity reigns because the person in charge is less able to provide direction single-handedly.

2. The Leader as Role Model

Like activists, role models are not necessarily in charge of the people they lead. A newly hired customer service associate with better customer service skills might carry on as usual in the new company and have a leadership impact on colleagues without even intending to do so or being aware of leading by example. Of course, executives can also deliberately set an example through transparency, integrity, social consciousness, work ethic or a bottom-line focus among other ways.

Executive leadership focuses on individuals as leaders. But groups are also role models that lead by example. The business press is constantly lauding successful companies. Other businesses then follow the lead of the role models celebrated by the media.

Countries that initiate environment friendly policies can have a leadership impact on other countries. League leading sports teams lead their competitors by example. Thus there is a massive amount of leadership that does not entail being an individual in charge of a group. Moreover, groups can be activist leaders as well as role models. Think of Greenpeace.

Two inferences follow from this discussion: (1) being an individual in charge of a group is only one type of leadership not the whole story and (2) leadership must be a form of influence that can come from anywhere, independent of role.

Businesses need all employees to lead both as activists and role models. Employee engagement is difficult to achieve because organizations are too top-down; they glorify executive leadership which is paternalistic. Employees must learn to engage themselves by showing leadership as activists and role models. Employees who perform in an exemplary manner are role model leaders while those who promote a better way are activist leaders.

3. The Leader as Parent

We can study leadership from two very different angles. First, we can look at what moves a group in a new direction such as how Microsoft followed Apple's graphical user interface by introducing Windows or how they followed Netscape by developing Internet Explorer. We could also analyze why people followed Hitler or the cult leader Jim Jones who led his followers to commit mass suicide. This is leadership viewed from a third person, objective, slant.

Second, we can study leadership from a first person perspective, by asking ourselves what we want in a leader, what sort of person we would gladly follow. While we might vehemently (if defensively) reject the suggestion that we are searching for a substitute parent figure, the descriptions that emerge from this sort of "research" are remarkably like what we want in an ideal parent. Essentially, we want leaders we can admire, who we can look up to and respect, who can provide our lives with meaning or a sense of purpose and who can calm our fears in stressful times. Is this not what our parents did for us as children?

This is a primitive concept of leadership given that everyone has parents. But, at a deeper level, most higher animals form themselves into extended family groups that are hierarchies with one individual at the head of affairs. So great is our need for this form of leadership that it is the most deeply entrenched and most resistant to change.

Ironically, just as our anxiety is going through the roof thanks to escalating change and complexity, the ability of those in charge to fully allay our fears is just as quickly disintegrating. This is why we are so dissatisfied with leaders today. But instead of looking to ourselves (as a wise crowd) to generate our own leadership, we are actually even more determined to find individual super heroes to lead us. We need to see that this search is self-defeating and get over our need for the leader-as-parent. We need to find our own way with adult-adult relationships, not parent-child ones.

We need a less personal concept of leadership, one that focuses on what organizations need in order to prosper, not what we need to be happy.

4. The leader as Executive

The executive leader is an amalgam of the other types, not a distinct kind of leadership on its own. This can be seen by asking why, in our efforts to understand leadership, we focus on CEOs and heads of states rather than on front-line supervisors. It is because our need for a parent leader, a hero to look up to, drives us to focus on larger-than-life types. Even though we use the phrase "team leader" to designate those in charge of front-line teams, we regard them as second class leaders, not paradigm cases. But front-line team leaders are still executives because they have the authority over people to direct their efforts. They can also be role models and, when they promote a better way, activists.

Further evidence that executives are primarily parent leaders is provided by the way we differentiate leadership from management. Leaders are portrayed in glowing, uplifting terms while managers are described as controlling, punitive, mechanical and cold. But both characterizations are parental. It is just that the leader is the good parent and the manager the bad one. We use the concept of manager mainly to throw into sharp relief what we want in a good parent (leader), just as we need cold to understand hot and evil to understand good.

But suppose we set aside parental imagery altogether and reinvent management as a more positive, supportive function. Now we are free to say that managers can be nurturing, empowering and developmental. If all forms of leadership entail influence, then making decisions must be what managers do, even strategic decisions. Influencing employees to work harder or smarter can be reframed as managerial motivation not leadership.

Thus the executive role is a complex function consisting mainly of management (suitably upgraded) and parent leadership along with some role model and activist leadership. But only management and parent leadership are roles. Being a role model or an activist leader are occasional acts of influence that all employees can engage in regardless of role.

The Future: Leadership in a Postmodern World

In a postmodern world there are no final authorities, only people with a view on various topics. This world is powered by wise groups rather than individual sages. Leadership in this context is ephemeral, fleeting and fragmented. For example, in a meeting, each participant might show leadership for a moment by persuading others to think differently on the subject under discussion. Such activist leadership can shift dozens of times from person to person in the course of a meeting. No individual provides direction to the group. Rather, leadership emerges through discussion. Springing unexpectedly from diverse sources, it is not tied to any one individual and showing such leadership does not entail taking charge of the group.

Activist leadership is based on great content which can have a leadership impact even if the person promoting it has zero emotional intelligence and doubtful integrity. Where content is king, credibility trumps character. Of course sterling character is always essential for any role occupant because roles, by definition, entail responsibilities which, in turn, are based on trust. But leading as an activist or role model is an act, not a role. Being discrete acts means that we can buy what leaders are selling without joining their camps, which is why we don't care so much about who they are as people.

Wise crowds can be wiser when someone facilitates their discussion using questions to stimulate new thinking. But this is not leadership as it does not provide direction. If management means getting the most out of all resources, then acting as a facilitator is one of the things that managers do. Jim Collins, with his level 5 leadership, recasts leadership as a facilitative activity (first who, then what) thus preserving the status quo notion that executives must be leaders even if they no longer provide direction but draw it out of others instead. It is easy to accept this idea if we are hooked on the parent leadership model. But if we set the latter aside, we are free to regard facilitation as a managerial activity.

After all, activist leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and the bottom-up promoter of new products advocate new directions which is surely the essence of leadership.

Qualities Needed to be an Activist or Role Model Leader

Only executive and parent leaders need to have sterling character. This is because we place so much trust in them by giving them massive authority over us. We take a great risk by expecting them to provide our lives with meaning. A lot is at stake for us personally when we sign up with an executive or parent leader.

Conversely, a role model leader simply needs to do something better or ahead of others. Highly original artists, for example, might be obnoxious and lack integrity. They are often so absorbed in their art that they are oblivious to the feelings of others and they may even lack self-awareness. But they lead if their art is sufficiently original that other artists follow their example. Here, content is totally king when it comes to leadership.

Similarly, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi had very different styles. One was a great orator while the other engaged in passive civil disobedience. Businesses are starting to place more emphasis on "evidence based" decision making. In this context, an employee who promotes a better way by citing hard evidence could have a leadership impact on senior management with an abrasive style if the content is sufficiently compelling on its own.

In short, there are no personal qualities that all activists or role models must share. What it takes to influence a particular audience is completely situational. Even the courage to challenge the status quo is situational because some audiences might be so opportunistic that only a good idea is required, not courage.

The Postmodern Executive

Executives have an important role to play. Despite the greater wisdom of a crowd, complexity demands specialization. Facilitators, catalysts, coaches and developers of others can add value as good managers. Of course, some groups can be self-managing but specialization allows individual roles to add value in different ways.

Executives are primarily managers (with management suitably upgraded) but they can also show leadership on a discrete, occasional basis. We simply need to stop seeing them as leaders by virtue of their role, especially of the parental variety, if we want to empower ourselves to be full members of a wise crowd.

Why it Matters

Businesses striving to win a war of ideas need all employees thinking harder. To fully engage them, their proposals for change need to be seen as efforts to lead, not framed condescendingly as suggestion box material for the "real leaders" to act on. As long as executives monopolize leadership, they will be stuck with the metaphor of the organization-as-person where the "head" thinks and the "hands" do, where employees are "hired hands" feeling like mere passengers on the bus.

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