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Why Leadership Is Not Working

Why do large companies continually struggle to innovate and engage employees? One of the findings of a 2002 Gallop poll was that employees are discontented when they feel that leaders don't respect them enough to hear their input.

The failure to listen is consistent with the metaphor of the organization-as-person where the "head" does the thinking and the "hands" execute. It is no coincidence that employees were once called "hired hands." As long as leaders insist on doing all the thinking, there is no need to listen to anyone else.

As poor engagement and innovation are so persistent, how can leadership be working? It's not the fault of particular leaders, however, it's the way leadership is conceived.

Because leadership is romanticized, we have high hopes of leaders. Not surprisingly, adulation turns to scorn when they let us down. But leaders are not to blame. We collude in our own disempowerment by demanding great things of leaders. So willing are we to depend on them, we are quick to abdicate responsibility for ourselves.

Heroic leadership is now fortunately losing its grip on us but its post-heroic variant does little more than rearrange the proverbial deck chairs on the titanic. We still expect miracles from leaders. In switching our allegiance to the post-heroic version, we just want them to consult us a little more. But leadership so conceived is still a top-down force and employees are still mere passengers on the bus.

Unfortunately, we find it hard to get excited by leaders who are less than heroic. Leadership is all-or-nothing, like any romanticized notion. Unless leaders are inspiring enough to be put on a pedestal, we may not see them as leaders at all. The transformational leadership bandwagon, now thankfully losing momentum, feeds on our addiction to superheroes. Like drug addicts we want a stronger dose when the old one no longer does it for us.

Reinventing Leadership

Post-heroic leadership is ultimately no solution because it still focuses too much attention on one person, the group's central figure. We need a concept of leadership that explains how all front line employees can show leadership bottom-up without taking charge of anyone. To be fully engaged and innovative, employees need to see how they can be leaders too.

So-called dispersed or distributed leadership does not go far enough. This idea is another rearranging of the deck chairs because it's just the old idea of informal leadership. An informal leader is still in charge of a group and it is this image of leadership that is the problem.

We debate endlessly what qualities leaders should have but we never question the basic assumption that a leader is a person in charge of a group. We envisage leaders as taking groups on a journey in order to realize a vision.

On this view of leadership, power is concentrated in the hands of one person and this is the fundamental reason why large organizations are so inept at innovation and employee engagement. When ownership for direction is concentrated at the top (the "head"), employees (the "hands") feel no more engaged than passengers on a bus. Leaders are expected to know what new directions to pursue, thus being the sole source of innovation as well.

Does this mean that organizations should make decisions democratically? No, those at the top need to be accountable. Rather, what is needed is a shift in the type of power we associate with leadership. Instead of basing leadership on the power to make decisions, it must be associated with the power to influence. The connection between leadership and influence is not new but we need to take two further steps:

  1. Completely break the connection between leadership and decision making
  2. Recognize that leadership can be shown without being in charge of followers

1. Leadership Without Decision Making

There is a fundamental confusion at the heart of conventional thinking about leadership. On the one hand we want to say that leadership is an influence process. At the same time, we judge leaders to be effective if they make sound decisions. Aspiring political leaders, for example, once elected no longer need to influence the electorate. They simply need to make sound decisions to be judged as effective leaders. Even a so-called informal leader is granted authority by the group to make decisions for it.

The association of leadership with decision making is a problem because employees striving to show leadership bottom-up have no authority to decide anything for their bosses. Their leadership, if we allow that it exists, must be based on pure influence alone.

To break the stranglehold of decision making on leadership we need to see that all decisions made by executives are managerial actions, never leadership. Executives are managers by virtue of the authority vested in them. Leadership is a type of influence, not a role. Indeed any form of influence is occasional action, not an ongoing state, role or type of person.

2. Leadership Without Being in Charge

(a) Leading by Example

There is only one way that leadership can be shown without being in charge of followers and that is through influence alone. There are actually many instances of such leadership, none of which can be accounted for by conventional leadership theory.

Any employee can show leadership by example without either the talent or desire to take charge of a group even informally. Whenever an employee behaves in an exemplary manner and others follow suit, leadership has occurred without the employee making any decisions for the group. Market leading companies lead competitors by example, such as Apple does in music, software and cell phones.

When companies around the world adopted Jack Welch's mantra of being number one or two in a market, GE showed leadership by example without being in charge of those who followed. When former communist countries introduced capitalist practices, they were following the lead of South Korea, Malaysia, Japan and other emerging, successful market economies. A city that implements unusually green practices can have a similar leadership impact on other cities. Leadership in sports is shown by example where leading teams decide nothing for followers.

(b) Promoting New Directions

In addition to leading by example, leadership can be shown by explicitly advocating a better way. When Martin Luther King, Jr. protested against segregation on buses, he had a leadership impact on the U.S. Supreme Court, leading them to make such discrimination unconstitutional. Gandhi had a similar leadership impact on the British government, inducing them to grant independence to India. When green leaders such as Al Gore promote green practices and communities around the globe adopt his proposals, he shows leadership by promoting a better way through pure influence without any decision making authority over those who follow.

Leadership Redefined

Leadership shown by example or by advocating new directions can be defined as showing the way for others. CEOs lead in this way when they promote a new vision. This is how a front line innovator shows leadership bottom-up when successfully promoting a new product to management. A major implication of this reframing of leadership is that being in charge of a group is only a special case of leadership NOT the defining paradigm.

But what becomes of being in charge? This means being a manager, not a leader. By basing leadership strictly on pure influence, we have the key to finally separating leadership from management. All decisions made for a group must be regarded as managerial, not leadership. Management needs to be upgraded to take a larger share of the organizational load. We need to recognize that management can be empowering, nurturing, engaging and developmental.

The leadership bandwagon got off the ground in the 1980's following the success of Japanese business in the U.S. A scapegoat was needed to blame for poor U.S. competitiveness and management was convicted and duly executed. Instead of upgrading management, there was a great hue and cry to replace managers with leaders.

It may be heresy to say so but this was a gross error which has been stifling organizational effectiveness ever since. It is time to bring management back from the dead.

Key Features of Leadership Reinvented

  • Leaders show the way for others with or without being in charge of those who follow.
  • Leadership comes to an end once followers buy the need to change.
  • Leadership has nothing to do with managing or getting things done through people.
  • Executives are managers by virtue of occupying a position of power, not leaders.
  • Only management is a role, not leadership.
  • Managers need integrity, character and emotional intelligence because of the authority they have over people; leaders need a better idea, the courage to promote it and some influencing skills.

To say that leadership comes to an end once followers get on board with a proposed new direction may sound strange but this is how all forms of influence work. As soon as you sign on the dotted line to buy a new car, for example, the salesperson normally stops selling to you. Rude ones even start taking calls from other customers while you are completing your paperwork. Similarly, when you are trying to persuade your children to eat their vegetables, you stop beating your gums once they start eating.

A CEO stops promoting a new vision and turns to other matters when it is clear that everyone is on board. Of course, during a lengthy change process, repeated injections of leadership may be needed. But leadership really just sells the tickets for the journey; management drives the bus to the destination. This is compatible with periodic reselling of the tickets if any passengers question the wisdom of the journey en route.

The idea that leadership is a short episode, an act of influence, only sounds strange in relation to the assumption that leadership means being a certain type of person who occupies an ongoing role in a group.

How Leadership Works

In business meetings what is everyone doing? They are advocating their solutions to the problems under discussion. They are trying to show leadership. Organizations are market places composed of people hawking their wares, their solutions to important problems. In looking for buyers for their ideas, they are really trying to show leadership.

Compare this scenario with a work group assembling a car. When one team member regularly advises colleagues on how to do their work, this person becomes what we call the group's informal leader. But this must be recast as informal management because leadership has nothing to do with execution. In meetings, people advocating their solutions are not striving to get work done. They are simply trying to influence colleagues to buy their solutions to problems.

In fact, good ideas can win the day even when advocated by people who aren't conventional leadership material. This is increasingly the case wherever evidence based decision making is popular and hard evidence can be presented for a proposal. Leadership works like all other forms of influence. Leading is not identical to selling but both are forms of influence that are successful only when someone buys what is being sold.

The bottom line is that business is now engaged in a war of ideas where content is king. The power on which leadership is based is inexorably shifting from the power of personality to the power of a better idea, from style or form to substance or content. The problem with ideas, however, is that no one can dominate with them. This means that leadership is now occasional action that shifts rapidly from one person or group to another, no longer an ongoing role.

The entire association of leadership with hierarchical dominance is over, a dinosaur in an age of innovation driven by Richard Florida's creative class and Daniel Pink's "whole new mind."

Implications of Leadership Reinvented

  • Leadership is fleeting, episodic influence that lasts only as long as the latest good idea.
  • Anyone with a better idea can have a leadership impact, thus showing leadership without being a leader in the conventional sense.
  • So-called post-heroic leadership is really management. Striving to get the best out of people, to maximize their performance and potential is what managers do. Management is like investment thus always seeking the best return on resources. Management works by  making decisions, developing resources and by facilitating the efforts of people.
  • What we call leadership development is mostly management development.

Benefits of Leadership Reinvented

It is well known that innovative companies with strong employee engagement seek and value the input of employees. This creates widely shared ownership for business direction. In a knowledge driven age, employees want to contribute through creative thinking, not just by getting work done. This is not happening in companies where direction is one way, top down. Rearranging the deck chairs goes hand in hand with a top level failure of imagination and resistance to fundamental change. Until the very foundations of leadership alter, large businesses will continue to struggle with innovation and employee engagement. We won't get rid of the stultifying metaphor of the organization-as-person where employees are cast in the role of mere "hands" until everyone's thinking is reframed as attempts to show leadership.


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