Primitive Leadership


The primitive leaderTraditionally, the leader sits at the top of a hierarchy. This is a very primitive concept of leadership. Most higher animals also form themselves into hierarchies, which is biologically and psychologically primitive. Why have we not progressed beyond our animal cousins?

The first priority of positional leaders is to maintain a hold on to their position.

  • Leaders and followers collude to maintain the status quo.
  • Aspiring leaders want to get to the top too - they need to preserve the hierarchy.

Why Traditional Leadership is Paternalistic

  • We look for a parental figure (normally a father figure) in all our leaders.
  • Everyone likes to have a confident, self-assured person to look up to.
  • In particular, t hose with lower self esteem feel secure with a strong leader to take charge of them.
  • Traditional leadership is debilitating - aspiring leaders compete to overthrow the leader while the more submissive are afraid to challenge their leader for fear of disapproval.
  • Neither contributes as much to enhancing organizational effectiveness as they should.
  • Chimpanzees and other animals are similarly preoccupied with their hierarchical position.
  • Traditional leadership is psychologically primitive - this means it is paternalistic - the traditional leader needs to care for employees and they, in turn, look up to leaders and depend on them, much as they once did their parents. This is highly disempowering and a waste of human talent.

Leadership Reinvented

  • Holding down a fixed position was OK when the world changed slowly.
  • Today, leadership must be more fluid, coming from many directions as the needed.
  • We need to relinquish our primitive desire to regard one person as the leader.
  • We and our colleagues can take the lead on different occasions.
  • Becoming fully empowered and self reliant will be anxiety producing for many.
  • View leadership solely as a process whereby anyone with good ideas who can persuade others to follow is displaying leadership regardless of their hierarchical status.

Transactional Analysis and Leadership

Briefly, transactional analysis shows us that we relate to each other in one of 3 ways:

  • Parent to child - telling others what to do, talking down to them.
  • Child to parent - being submissive, throwing temper tantrums, flaunting authority.
  • Adult to adult - relating as equals, reason dominating emotion.

Implications of Paternalistic Leadership

  • We're not as ''grown up'' as we think, our emotions often get the better of us and we revert to either Parent or Child mode in our relationships.
  • Any time you lose your temper, sulk, lash out at someone, tell people off, get revenge, you are operating in either Parent or Child mode - or a bit of both.
  • Nuturing, coaching, sympathizing with people, if done in a paternalistic way, is also a form of Parent-Child way of relating to people.
  • In some ways the emotional intelligence movement is about trying to get us to behave in a more Adult way more of the time.
  • Traditional top-down leadership based on the authority of position fosters a Parent-Child mode of relating to subordinates. However much both sides might try to relate in an Adult-Adult manner, the reality of their power differential intrudes and one side or the other lapses into Parent or Child mode - especially common under pressure.
  • A conception of leadership that is not based on positional power is more conducive to an Adult-Adult mode of relating to others.
  • On this view, anyone can lead by advocating new directions, regardless of position in the hierarchy. An Adult-Adult relationship helps to keep emotional distortions at bay.
  • Ironically, true leadership is harder for managers to display simply because it is hard, in practice, to separate genuine influence from authority.
  • When your manager tries to persuade you to do something, is he/she genuinely trying to persuade you or are you politely being told to do it? The latter is not really leadership, but managerial decision making.

Hero Worship

Primitive leadership tells us a lot about human needs, our need for leaders is like our need for heroes. Nothing wrong with having role models, but we sometimes go overboard and look up to our heroes to an unhealthy extent which generally leads to disappointment and, in any case, we disempower ourselves in depending too much on heroic leaders. For more on this theme, see Our Need for Leaders.

What do you think? Do we need to see leaders as occupying positions of power over us? Or should we give such people some other label, like Chief, Manager, Coach, Executive, Premier. This approach has the advantage of saying to people in such positions that they need to SHOW leadership, that they can't BE a leader just by being in the top slot. Why not share your thoughts on this topic in the comments box below.

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. For more discussion of how leadership can work as influence, see Thought LeadershipBottom-up Leadership and Organic Leadership.