Heroic LeadersOur primary image of the leader comes from the military. Great leaders have always been heroes, especially military heroes. Hero worship is OK if it inspires us to greater heights. But bad if it disempowers us, making us dependent on heroes. Military heroes know where to go and how to get there so can lead from the front. Organizations today need everyone thinking about new directions to pursue.

No one person can now lead from the front without a crystal ball!! Future leadership depends on complex knowledge and innovation from all.

21st century leadership is not dependent on position. Leadership now means promoting a better way. This is an ACT not a role. Front line employees can show leadership without even being seen as informal leaders in the sense of taking charge informally of the group.

  • Traditional leadership theory is narrowly concerned with top-down leadership in large organizations
  • Other kinds of leadership include: market leadership, leadership in a golf tournament, leadership in a league of sports teams, i.e. football, plus the indirect leadership of every person who sets an example for others every day without trying to persuade anyone explicitly to follow suit. For instance, innovators in knowledge intensive industries are exhibiting a type of leadership that is not associated with the top - down direction of subordinates.

What is the one characteristic that is true of all leaders? Is it being tall? Being charismatic? Having a commanding presence? Being action orientated? Or just being honest and ethical?

  • It is none of these.
  • Rather, all leaders have a drive to differentiate themselves from their peers - whether the individual is a person, a team, a business, a sports club or a nation.
  • When individuals differentiate themselves they stand out from their peers (or group).
  • Some are seen as deviants and rejected, others are seen as leaders and followed.
  • Some instances of leadership are so obviously admirable that followers need no persuasion to jump on the bandwagon - this is leading by example, other instances of leadership require the leader to attempt to persuade followers directly and explicitly.
  • Traditional leadership theory narrowly focuses on direct, conscious influence attempts.
  • But we imitate people we admire more than is generally acknowledged, hence more leadership is indirect and unintentional than is commonly realized.
  • This broader view of leadership captures how it is possible to lead in situations other than when you have power over others in a large organization - a market leader, a league leading sports team, the leader in a golf tournament, an innovative knowledge worker - all have one thing in common - being better at differentiating themselves than others.

How this applies to large organizations

  • You can differentiate yourself in either of two ways - by doing what others are doing only better or by doing something different (or advocating doing things better or different).
  • Leaders devise or promote new directions, new ways of doing things, managers execute existing directions.
  • All organizations have two corresponding tasks - to deliver existing services efficiently and to create new services.
  • Leadership is associated with the latter, management with the former.
  • The one essential characteristic of all leaders is striving to achieve at the highest level and this leads others to want to follow their example.
  • A chief executive might have all the charisma in the world, but without a compelling idea of how to make things better, no leadership can be shown by this person.
  • Alternatively, someone lower down in the organization with a compelling idea but no charisma could lead the organization in a new direction - provided enough opportunists jumped on the bandwagon with little or no persuasion.
  • Of course being persuasive often helps a leader get others on board faster, but persuasiveness is not an essential characteristic of leadership because it is possible to lead without it.
  • All situations where people lead by example do not include explicit persuasion
  • All market leaders and sports leaders lead by setting a compelling example alone - here of course not only is no attempt made to persuade competitors to follow, close following is discouraged.

Why is this important?

  • Traditional leadership theory is disempowering - it confines leadership to the top.
  • There are two kinds of empowerment - managerial and leadership.
  • Managerial empowerment lets employees make decisions in the execution tasks.
  • Leadership empowerment asks employees at all levels to display leadership.
  • When leading edge knowledge workers develop new products, senior executives operate more as venture capitalists than leaders - investing in the best ideas (leadership) emerging from below.
  • This new perspective on leadership is important because it advocates dispersing leadership throughout organizations rather than monopolizing it at the top.
  • Everyone can lead by setting an example for others regardless of what other skills they have or do not have for influencing people more directly.

Leadership as Discovery

  • Leadership = doing things different, either doing existing things better or doing different things.
  • In simple situations it isn't hard to see a better direction and advocate it to others.
  • Here, new directions are taken on the basis of discrete, conscious decisions.
  • In more complex situations, it is often necessary to discover new directions through trial and error.
  • Here, new directions emerge through someone discovering a new way of doing things.
  • New directions emerging through trial and error is totally different from changing direction based on an all-or-nothing discrete decision.
  • As organizational environments become increasingly complex, more and more new directions will have to emerge through trial and error (organizational learning).
  • Here, the leaders are those employees who, regardless of their status or influencing skills, discover new directions to pursue.
  • Wherever complexity reigns, organizations that encourage leadership from all employees will be more successful than those that restrict leadership to managers.

The role of innovation

Innovators lead by showing us where our industry is likely to go next. The implication is that your leaders do NOT need to be inside your organization! We already speak of "market leaders" -- so leadership can come from anywhere. Leadership is too often confused with the question of how people in positions of AUTHORITY influence employees to pull in the same direction.

Why is it then that entrepreneurs do not need (internal) leaders? They look to industry leaders for inspiration and role models to beat. Such leadership is about innovation - not using influence skills to motivate employees. Why develop leaders to be nice instead of fostering real leadership through innovation?

Some leaders have good people skills, others are too self-absorbed, too focused on their own ideas or on beating competitors. Who would follow such leaders? Opportunists who know a good thing when they see it, who are ready to jump on a bandwagon with little or no persuasion. People who are likely to be leaders themselves in other words. As knowledge workers become empowered enough to think like entrepreneurs they will look outside for leadership if you can't provide it. But does it matter?

See also Organic Leadership and Bottom-up Leadership. See also: Leadership Defined

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