Many people share an ideal leader image. Among other traits, the ideal leader has vision, charisma, integrity, emotional intelligence, an inspiring delivery and sterling character. Popular examples of such leaders include chief executives, heads of state and other larger-than-life heroes. Most people clearly think of leadership as being a certain type of person, thereby ruling out other types. It also rules out everyday, mundane leadership viewed as an occasional act that all employees can show even if they don’t have what it takes to be a formal leader at any level, let alone chief executive.

Leadership thinking is in crisis at the moment. On the one hand we recognize the need to move toward a less heroic leadership model, but at the same time, we are reluctant to give up our ideal image of the leader which is resolutely heroic. To fully engage and retain talent, organizations desperately need a concept of everyday leadership, one that makes it clear how all employees can show some leadership if only on a small, local scale. Engagement depends on fostering a greater sense of ownership which could be achieved if more employees could see themselves as leaders.

Heroic leaders can be extremely disempowering by creating dependency in everyone who idealizes them. Cultivating or recruiting heroic leaders can defeat employee engagement efforts if employees expect leaders to have all the answers or be able to walk on water. Potential leaders of the future could be turned off by feeling that they can’t live up to the ideal leader image. However, we cling to our heroic leader model because complexity and the pace of change fuel anxiety which, in turn, increases our need for heroic leaders, a seemingly inescapable vicious circle.

To break the hold of our ideal leader image, it helps to see what it excludes. This awareness might make it easier to recognize alternative leadership models.

How the Ideal Leader Differs from Other Leaders

If leadership is a type of person, we need to ask why we blind ourselves to leadership shown by people who don’t fit our ideal image.

Here are some leaders who fail to meet our ideal:

  • The teenage gang leader who attracts a following because he has “street cred”, is tough and prepared to defy the law, even if it means shooting his way out of trouble.
  • Stalin, currently admired by many Russians who seem to want their leaders to be decisive disciplinarians who rule with an iron fist even if they are ruthless, insensitive and prepared to eliminate all opposition. Many cultures seem to prefer decisive, iron-fisted, dictatorial leaders even if they are secretive and highly controlling.
  • Hitler, loathsome values, zero integrity and no ethics but had a loyal following.
  • Technical leaders, geeks whose new product ideas inspire their team members even though they have no vision, an abrasive style and little emotional intelligence.
  • Leaders in scientific or professional functions who exert quiet influence based on factual knowledge or evidence but who are personally uninspiring.

These examples raise the question of the origin and basis of our ideal leader image. Is it not completely relative to our western, democratic culture? If so, then we are surely kidding ourselves when we claim to be talking about leadership in general. Indeed, we must recognize that our concept of leadership is western democratic chief executive leadership (where the term “chief executive” includes heads of state). Our ideal leader image is thus biased in two ways: first it is culturally relative and second we narrowly focus on larger-than-life characters such as chief executives and heads of state, the heroic, glamorous end of the spectrum. Further, we make matters worse by defining leadership in heroic terms.

The moral of this story is that there is really only one thing that all leaders have in common: people freely choose to follow them. This means that integrity, vision, emotional intelligence, charisma and other character traits are situational, thus relative to certain types of leaders or what is required in particular contexts, such as being a chief executive in a western democracy. Leaders are people with a following among members of a group with a common goal. (This excludes rock stars – they have a following among their loyal fans but they aren’t a group pursuing a common goal.)

Sales is a useful analogy to make this point as clear as possible. Just as there is no leadership without followers, there are no sales without buyers. The old saying “there is a sucker born every minute” captures the point that people sometimes buy stupid things or get conned by a clever sales pitch. The same is true of leadership: it is in the eye of the beholder. It thus doesn’t matter what traits leaders have as long as some people think they are worth following.

This argument makes the case pretty conclusively that leadership is a very relative term which should force us to admit that most of our thinking about leadership is about a particular model, not about leadership in general. We should qualify our talk about leadership to make it clear that our focus is western chief executive leadership.

Leadership as Act versus Type of Person

Despite the relative nature of leadership, we can still say something in general terms about what it takes to be a leader. To ascend to a leadership position in a group and maintain it for a reasonable period, it is essential to have some form of power that is valued and admired by the particular group. For example, the best software engineer or customer service associate might be recognized as the informal leader within their respective groups because they know what to do; they are credible and competent in their jobs. Employees who aspire to be leaders in this sense need to ascertain what their colleagues admire. Do they respect honesty, technical know-how, a certain work ethic or how they are treated, for example?

Viewed this way, leadership is infinitely more empowering. Such everyday leadership is open to employees who lack charisma, vision and sterling character traits. All they need is whatever it takes to influence their colleagues. This leadership is not about being a type of person but it is still about being able to dominate a group for a period of time.

But why stop here? Why restrict leadership to the ability to dominate a group? Is there room for leadership that involves merely one-off acts? If so, then many more employees can show occasional leadership, even those who have neither the inclination nor the capability to ascend to a leadership role, even informally.

Here are some examples of one-off leadership acts that do not entail even an informal leadership position in the affected group:

  • All employees occasionally influence their colleagues or boss to change by promoting or showing a better way of doing things. A good example is the developer of Playstation convincing his bosses to develop this product when their image of Sony did not include selling toys.
  • Some of Jack Welch’s ideas, such as being first or second in a market, had a leadership impact on businesses around the world even though he was neither their formal nor informal leader in a positional sense in those organizations.
  • Martin Luther King had a leadership impact on the S. government and Supreme Court when his demonstrations against segregation on buses led to its being made unconstitutional.
  • We are still inspired to act in certain ways by long dead leaders, such as Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill or Alexander the Great. For example a group of activists might decide to engage in passive resistance after reading about Mahatma Gandhi’s success in leading the British government to grant independence to India.
  • A newly hired customer service associate with much higher service standards could have a leadership impact on colleagues just by setting an example even if this person has no inclination or talent to be a team leader.
  • Non-positional leadership also occurs between competing groups as in market leaders and league leading sports teams.

All of these instances of leadership have one thing in common: they show the way for others by either promoting a new, better way of doing things or by setting an example. Employees who have a one-off leadership impact on colleagues may not have what it takes to be seen as an ongoing informal leader. They may be subject matter experts in an esoteric area that only gives them one opportunity to show leadership.

How Leadership is Shown

Leadership as a one-off act is shown in a different way from positional leadership. It is popular to think of leadership as an influence process, but the reality is that only leadership as a one-off act is based on influence. Positional leadership revolves around making decisions for a group.

In all formal leadership positions, whether at the heroic chief executive level or at the front line, the person in charge is given the authority to make decisions. We admire and are willing to follow chief executives who we rate as making sound decisions for the organization. This leadership is akin to following a tour guide. If you take a bus tour in a foreign country you are placing yourself in the tour guide’s hands and trusting that you will be taken where you want to go. Tour guides can “lead the way” because they know where to go and how to get there. You may need to be sold on taking the tour in the first place, but once you have signed up and boarded the bus, the tour guide doesn’t need to continue influencing you to take the tour. Once on board, you rely on the driver to make the right decisions for you.

Similarly, chief executives may have to persuade their senior team of the merits of making an acquisition or entering a new market, but not the rest of the organization. All other employees are on the bus already and their only option is to get off it if they don’t like the direction it is taking. In short, leadership shown by chief executives to the organization as a whole is not an influence process but a decision making one. This is a major problem for the chief executive leadership model – it is portrayed as an influence process but it is really not.

Conversely, when someone shows leadership on a one-off basis with no power to decide anything for the target audience, pure influence is the only option.