Success at Work

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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.

When we think about leadership we envisage being in charge of a group, not how to show leadership viewed as a discrete act. This is hugely disempowering. First, we overlook occasional acts of leadership shown by people who don't have what it takes to BE a leader, including ourselves.

The unending debate about leadership traits can’t be resolved without an agreed definition of leadership. Conventional leadership means being in charge of a group, formally or informally. Such leaders influence their groups to pursue a goal and they coordinate efforts to achieve it.

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.

Leadership’s hostile takeover of management’s role in the 1980’s has been a disaster. Efforts to separate them so romanticize leadership and demonize management that few can be leaders and no one wants to be a manager.

How does an activist become a leader? Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mandela were activists who we now recognize as leaders. If challenging the status quo is an essential part of how leadership works, then all leaders are activists.

Leading by example is odd because it doesn’t fit standard leadership models. But analyzing how it works can radically alter our thinking about leadership.

Here are 3 popular ways of defining leadership, each from a slightly different perspective: 1. Leadership means being the dominant individual in a group. 2. Leadership means getting things done through people. 3. Leadership means challenging the status quo, promoting a better way.

Microleadership, like microblogging or microfinance, is a small-scale affair. Despite its modest impact, more microleadership is urgently needed.

The myth that vision is required to lead people distorts the meaning of leadership and reveals our obsession with top level leadership. Consequently, we relegate small scale, occasional acts of leadership to the status of pseudo-leadership. Citing CEOs or presidents like John F. Kennedy we feel that, if they were visionary,  then all leadership must be so.