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Three Ways of Defining Leadership

by Mitch McCrimmon

Here are 3 popular ways of defining leadership, each from a slightly different perspective:

  1. Leadership means being the dominant individual in a group.
  2. Leadership means getting things done through people.
  3. Leadership means challenging the status quo, promoting a better way.

For many, leadership means doing all three of these things but there are subtle and important differences. Let’s look at them one by one.

Leadership means being the dominant individual in a group.

In primitive tribes and higher animal species the dominant individual was the leader. Being the leader simply meant having the power to attain and hold the top position for a reasonable length of time. Contrary to definition 2, you could be the leader without getting anything done through others. A leader was the person in charge even if the group was in a stable state where people went about their business as normal. As long as group members obeyed the leader’s rules, the leader did not even need to be actively involved in the lives of group members, let alone get anything done through them. You could also be the leader in such a group without promoting a better way as suggested by definition 3. If you didn’t need to be voted into power, why have a platform for change? You simply seized power; no sales pitch was needed on how you could make life better for the group. Yes, such leaders may have led groups successfully in battle and built great monuments with them, but, strictly speaking, you could be the leader without achieving anything through a group effort. The meaning of leadership, according to this definition, is simply to be at the top of the pile.

Leadership means getting things done through people.

Great leaders throughout history have led their groups to momentous achievements, but the idea that leadership should be defined as getting things done through people has been developed most fully by modern business, which is all about achieving results. As business has become more complex, the leadership challenge has grown form one of the simple issuing of orders to a few “hands” to the subtle coordination of highly skilled, diverse knowledge workers to build sophisticated machines and put men on the moon. There is a problem with this definition of leadership, however. It used to belong to management. Why the switch from management to leadership? And is this a good move? Up to the late 1970’s writers used the terms leadership and management interchangeably but with more emphasis on management. For example, the management theorists, Blake and Mouton, developed their famous managerial grid in the 1960’s. At the time, it was portrayed as a way of identifying your management style. Today, in line with the shift to leadership, the name is the same (managerial grid) but it is now positioned as a leadership style instrument.

Similarly, we used to talk about management style more than leadership style. Managers could be either “theory X” and task oriented or “theory Y” and concerned for people. But a profound shift in thinking took place in a revolutionary period lasting from the late 1970’s through the mid 1980’s. The cause of this upheaval was the commercial success of Japanese industry in North America. This led pundits to claim that the U.S. had lost its competitive edge because U.S. management was too bureaucratic, controlling, uninspiring and inept at fostering innovation. Rather than upgrade management, there was an emotional over reaction such that management was rejected and replaced by leadership. Since then, leaders were portrayed as theory Y, inspiring and concerned about people while management got saddled with all the bad guy attributes of being controlling, theory X, uninspiring and narrowly task focused. Similarly, the distinction between being transformational and transactional was originally launched to differentiate two leadership styles, but it wasn’t long before it became used to separate leadership from management, the former being transformational and the latter transactional.

In our haste to trash management, we grabbed whatever tools were handy but with heavy costs. First, we painted leadership into a corner by suggesting that you needed to be an inspiring cheerleader to be a leader, leaving no room for quiet or simply factual leadership. Second, we created a bloated concept of leadership by banishing management. Third, by attaching leadership to getting things done through a team, we associated leadership irrevocably with being in charge of people, thereby ruling out positionless leadership. Yes, there is informal leadership but this concept is essentially the same as formal leadership except for their power bases. Like its formal counterpart, informal leadership still means taking charge and managing a group to achieve a target. In either case, you need to have the personal presence, organizational skills and motivation to take charge to be a leader.

Leadership means challenging the status quo, promoting a better way.

Photo by Joshua Hibbert on Unsplash

We have always felt, intuitively, that leaders have the courage to stand up and be counted. They go against the grain, often at great risk, to call for change. We only need to look at Martin Luther King, Jr. His leadership rested not so much on his oratorical skills – they were just icing on the cake. He was a leader primarily because he marched and spoke against injustice. He challenged the status quo and promoted a better world.

However, and this is the whole point here, if you think through what it means to challenge the status quo or advocate change, there is no necessary implication that you have to be in charge of the people you are trying to influence. The bottom line is that this third definition, when worked through fully, gives us a way to break the stranglehold of the previous two definitions. The benefit of this move is that we gain a clearer understanding of how all employees can show leadership even if they totally lack the skills or inclination to take charge of groups in a managerial sense, even informally. Think again of Martin Luther King, Jr. He sought to move the U.S. Government and the population at large to think differently about such issues as segregation on buses. His leadership efforts were successful when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such discrimination unconstitutional. Now, it is obvious that he was not in a managerial role within the Supreme Court. He showed leadership to this group as an outsider. You could say the same of Jack Welch who had a leadership impact on countless businesses around the globe through his novel practices, such as being first or second in a market. Again, those who followed the lead of Jack Welch did not report to him. They were not even members of a common group.

Leadership Reinvented for the 21st Century

If we cast aside the first two definitions of leadership, what is left? If leadership means nothing more than promoting a better way, then we need to upgrade management to take care of everything to do with getting things done through people. We need to say that management does not entail being controlling, bureaucratic or theory X, that they can be as inspiring as they need to be, good at coaching, developing and empowering people.

A critical supporting fact is that the power on which leadership is based is shifting from having a dominant personality to the ability to devise new ways of working, new products and better services. Businesses that compete on the basis of rapid innovation are engaged in a war of ideas and no one has a monopoly on good ideas. This is revolutionary because it suggests that leadership can no longer be about group domination. Now, leadership is a brief influence impact, an episode or act, not an ongoing state or role. You still may need a larger than life personality to ascend to the role of Chief Executive, but leadership conceived as a good idea for a better way can be very small scale and local. Any employee with a better idea can promote it, even if only by example, without having the personal presence to be promoted to a managerial role. Strictly, speaking there are no longer any leaders, only leadership. This view captures the fact that leadership is a fleeting state that can shift quickly from one person to another. It is an impact rather than a type of person or position. It must be so if it can be shown by outsiders.

Key Features of Leadership Reinvented

  • It does not involve managing people to get things done.
  • It comes to an end once those led get on board. It sells the tickets for the journey; management drives the bus to the destination.
  • It is a discrete episode, a one-off act of influence, not an ongoing position of dominance.
  • It is based on the promotion of a better way.
  • It can be shown bottom-up as well as top-down.
  • It can be shown by outsiders and between competing individuals or groups.

Thought Leadership – The Essence of Leadership Reinvented

Organizations today need all employees to think creatively and to promote new products. Promoting a better idea can be called thought leadership. In a knowledge driven environment, the newest, best idea influences others to get on board. When a product developer convinces top management to adopt a new product, that person has shown thought leadership bottom-up. But it can be shown across groups as well. When Microsoft develops products or services invented by Apple or Google, they are following the lead of these innovators. This also is thought leadership.

While the possession of great emotional intelligence and the oratory of a Martin Luther King, Jr. can help thought leaders make their case, it is vital to see that these skills are nice to have add-ons, not an essential part of the meaning of leadership. Technical geeks with zero emotional intelligence and an obnoxious influencing style can show thought leadership if they can demonstrate the value of their ideas. This is very empowering because it moves us away from the demand to develop sophisticated leadership skills as a precondition of showing leadership. Strictly speaking there are no leadership skills, only influencing skills and great content. Imagine asking Tiger Woods. after the end of the third round when he is in the lead, how he developed such great leadership skills. The truth is that he shows leadership through being great at the content of his profession, not by having a separate set of talents called leadership skills. On the other hand, there are very definite management skills. Getting work done through people calls for quite sophisticated interpersonal and organizational skills.

Content is King

The point of the previous section is that convincing content or substance can trump great style or form. Having a larger than life personality may still help you get to be CEO but this is the power of style over substance. If the prospective leader has enough charisma, it almost doesn’t matter what is being advocated (the content). Conversely, thought leadership is most convincing if backed up by hard evidence. Having persuasive influencing skills helps but isn’t essential. This means that front line knowledge workers can focus on what it really takes to show leadership: begin by developing convincing content. If your idea is good enough it will virtually sell itself. It’s not that influencing skills are not valuable. The point is that we can define leadership without mentioning influencing style. Also, there is the fact that opportunists will get on board with a great idea with no persuasion whatsoever. Thus, if it is possible to show leadership without being personally persuasive, then having such skills cannot be a necessary condition to show leadership.

The Future of Leadership

Leadership reinvented can still be shown by CEOs. They just need to accept that much of what they do needs to be reclassified as management. They also need to devote more time to fostering leadership in front line employees, thereby taking empowerment a huge leap forward. If they want to reap the full innovative potential of all employees, CEOs and other managers need to engage and inspire employees more fully. Helping them to see how all employees can show leadership now could make all the difference between winning the war of ideas and falling further behind. Where knowledge rules, the old fashioned conception of leadership as group domination is dangerously obsolete. Complexity drives specialization. It is time to bring management back from the dead to take care of getting things done through people, leaving leadership to focus on finding and promoting new directions.

Definition number 1 may still be good enough to capture what happens in small street gangs and primitive tribes but it is most clearly out of date in a world that is a war of ideas. Number 2 is a mess because it is a total confusion of leadership and management. Only definition number 3 captures all leadership – that shown by people in charge, by those with neither the inclination nor the skills to take charge, and by outsiders like Martin Luther King, Jr. Uniquely, this definition also captures what it means to be a market leading company or a leading individual or team in sports. Leadership is simply a matter of showing the way. One of the many exciting features of this definition is that followers must choose to follow of their own free will because coercive power and authority are missing. Definition number 3 captures the essence of pure leadership.

See for more articles like this one. Mitch McCrimmon has over 30 years experience in executive assessment and coaching. His latest book, Burn! 7 Leadership Myths in Ashes, 2006, challenges conventional thinking on leadership.

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