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Where Does Leadership Live?

As we develop new ways of doing business, we must also develop new ways of looking at, and assigning, leadership.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

For all the business community talks about leadership, there is little exploration of the basic assumptions we make about it—what constitutes leadership, who we should call leaders, and what qualities a leader should demonstrate. Yet those assumptions are exactly what we (and our organizations) base so much of our thinking and actions on. Perhaps this is why there is still not a generally accepted definition of leadership in business literature and why it can be so difficult to gauge the impact of leadership development programs. The most foundational question we must ask is: Where does leadership live?

The dominant view is that leadership lives in individuals, with this school of thought spawning books and articles that trumpet headlines like “Seven Things You Can Do to Improve Your Leadership Today,” and various competency-based leadership development programs. It has its roots in the Great Man Theory of the mid-19th century, which states that certain individuals are destined to lead by virtue of the traits they possess.

Things have progressed a bit since then. Unlike in the 19th century, women are now considered leaders as well as men. And we know that leaders can be made as well as born, with a mix of natural talent and qualities acquired through training. Still, leadership is seen as something that leaders do to followers. Once trained, the leader is expected to work his or her magic on whichever people are assigned or choose to be followers.

But there are two noteworthy criticisms of this idea. The first is that when leadership characteristics are tightly drawn, they are too formulaic, devolving into a one-size-fits-all approach. Yet when widely drawn, they create an unattainable ideal. Look, for example, at Maxwell’s 21 indispensable qualities of a leader (emphasis mine): They are wonderful attributes but to demonstrate them all, a person must be a combination of Joan of Arc, Gandhi, and Steve Jobs. The second criticism is that putting all the expectations and responsibilities of leadership into one person takes the rest of us off the hook. Followers are perceived as passive and dependent. Consider, for instance, the Obama–Boehner nexus in Washington, DC, and how each side blames their impasses on either the president’s or the speaker’s lack of leadership.

To demonstrate all the qualities of leadership, a person must be a combination of Joan of Arc, Gandhi, and Steve Jobs.

The second school of thought believes that leadership lives in the relationship between the leader and his or her followers. Here, followers as well as the leader are active participants in the leadership process. Much like in an enduring joyful marriage, the credit goes not to one or the other but rather to them both; it is how they are together that makes the magic. Barbara Kellerman is among those who emphasize the importance of followers and followership to successful leadership. So, too, is Derek Sivers, as seen in his much-viewed video: Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy (which has had almost 2.5 million views at last count). Leadership is not done to followers, it is done with them.

The third perspective is that leadership is an emergent property of the system. This view incorporates not just the leader and his or her followers but also the non-followers, events, and influences that constitute the context for leadership. The leadership evidenced is a property of the system distinct from the qualities or characteristics of any of the individuals. A galvanizing event, such as the financial meltdown of 2008 or a scientific breakthrough, is as likely to catalyze leadership as much as is a charismatic CEO. Margaret Wheatley speaks of a “perfect storm” of people, place, challenges, and resources. Here, the qualities of leadership are distributed among the many and leadership is more about the what and the how than the who. According to Wheatley and Deborah Frieze, the focus in on building “intentional working relationships where new knowledge, practices, courage, and commitment can develop.”

This last approach has received the greatest pushback from traditionalists. I have found that people either embrace a systems-based worldview wholeheartedly or reject it as being rather squishy. Increasingly, science is showing us that our world is composed of complex adaptive systems and understanding their properties and function is essential (see my previous post, The Source of Organizational Dysfunction, Revealed!). The proponents of emergent leadership insist that while the individual model was fine for an industrial, production-based economy, a new network-centric model is needed for the knowledge economy where collaboration and innovation are prized.

Which model makes the most sense for you and your organization? Whichever one you choose, it will shape how you hire, set expectations for, train, and reward individuals in your organization. It will inform whether you are engaged in leader development (of a person) or leadership development (in the organization and network). Whenever I lead a seminar, I inevitably encounter someone who does not believe that leadership can be taught; others are firmly wedded to the individual model. I have greatly simplified the case for each and there is legitimate scholarship supporting all three approaches.

The good news is that while this quandary is important, it is actually an and question, not an or question. There are people who bring natural talents for working with others to their roles. We have strong cultural biases to calling these people leaders. There are times and places where a leader needs to be in command. However, organizations are evolving and work is becoming more team based. To be nimble in the face of rapid change, widely distributed leadership capacity and capability may provide a decisive competitive advantage. You can draw from and combine the insights in each of these models like a formulary crafting a custom prescription.

What I hope that you will take from all this is that it is important to think about, articulate, and challenge your assumptions, and those of your colleagues, about leaders and leadership. Be intentional about the choices you make and open to new ways to approach the age-old challenge of getting the leadership you need.

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He is the coauthor of You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (PublicAffairs, 2019). He writes frequently about leadership, change, and organizational culture.

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