Our Need for Leaders


Need for leadersWe spend a lot of time thinking about leadership. When things go wrong, we blame leaders - a useful scapegoat. When we feel anxious, we look to leaders to make us feel better. As the pressure to succeed grows, so does our need for leaders. What does it say about us that we so strongly need leaders? 

Why do we need leaders so much? How does our need for leadership differ from hero worship?

Why We Need Leaders

There is no question that we idealize leaders. When you are asked to define leadership, do you visualize "great" leaders or front-line supervisors? We seem to need leaders to be larger-than-life figures, people we can admire and look up to, just as we did our parents, particularly our fathers. Indeed it is arguable that the leader is a substitute father-figure.

It is no surprise that we expect leaders to look after us, be nice to us, pay attention to our needs and inspire us with visions of glory. We all have dreams of a bright future and it is leaders we look to to help us realize our dreams.

You say there's nothing wrong with this? But isn't it disempowering to depend so much on one person? Have we not outgrown our need to depend on our parents or their substitutes? Can we not find our own way and show leadership ourselves?

What are Your Needs?

Some of us need to assert, differentiate, individuate ourselves. Others have stronger needs to merge with, depend on, or look up to others. We all turn for help when stressed and there is a lot of that around today. The psychology of leadership is basically paternalistic - we are looking for a father figure in our leaders.

If your focus is on differentiating yourself and you are a knowledge worker, you will be most impressed by experts in your field who are excelling - they will lead you and inspire you to surpass them. You will be less influenced by those who have only a position in a managerial hierarchy - their authority is likely to have little impact on you. If you like to depend on, or look up to, others, you may admire the traditional leader.

Leaders, like other heroes, are often good role models - they help us learn how to meet our own goals and function independently. Even the most confident need to benchmark themselves against those who seem better at them at something. As in sports, no one would really excel if there was no one to beat. Ideally, we want a balance of independent confidence and role models to learn from.

Leadership and Dependency

Too much independence leads to being divorced from reality. Too much dependence and we can never be leaders ourselves. When tempted to blame leaders ask yourself: ''What could I have done about it?''

Or, when confused and seeking leadership, try thinking it through for yourself. When we blame leaders or expect too much of them, we are disempowering ourselves. What initiative can you take? What suggestions can you offer?

Develop a greater external focus so you can spot opportunities before others. Stay too internally focused and you will be thinking in a vacuum - no ideas there. Leadership is often a matter of discovery - but you need to be actively looking to discover anything new.

Next time you are tempted to throw up your hands and say you have no solution, try looking around just a bit harder. Ask yourself, honestly: ''How strongly do I really need leadership from others?'' Being more confident and empowered does not mean ignoring good leadership when it comes your way. Just try to be less quick to seek leadership the minute you get stuck. This is not about not talking through issues with people - team work is not the same as depending on a leader to solve all our problems.

Leadership's Primitive Origins

We naturally form ourselves in to Hierarchies - just like many other animals. So, it is no surprise that we associate leadership with being the individual in charge of the group, department, company or country. Is it not time to rethink the foundations of leadership, to develop a new concept of leadership? Conventional leadership is unavoidably paternalistic. As long as we expect someone else to show us the way and be the guardians of our futures, we will blame them if our dream sours and not do enough for ourselves. We submit ourselves to the metaphor of the organization-as-person which means that the HEAD thinks and the HANDS do, which is why employees are sometimes called "hired hands."

Leadership Reinvented

To break away from our conventional leadership model we need a new definition of leadership that makes it an influence process, one that anyone can engage in, not just the person in charge. It may be efficient to have one person who is accountable for the whole, but we can call those persons, chiefs, executives, managers or presidents, anything but leaders. Leadership-as-influence means that it is an occasional ACT, not an ongoing role. As an act, anyone who influences the actions of others, however temporarily, shows leadership.

Where do you want to go from here?

Want to read more on the relationship between vision and leadership? If leadership isn't just an influence process, then it's a role in a hierarchy, but this is biologically primitive. See Primitive Leadership for more on this topic. For more discussion of how leadership can work as influence, see Thought LeadershipBottom-up Leadership and Organic Leadership.