Do we need to stop talking about leadership?
Updated: Jul 3, 2019
Why are there so many bad leaders?
Why are so many of the people who lead organisations neglectful, distracted, disorganised, unfocused, distant, negligent, uncaring, incompetent, or even just plain mean? I’ve worked for a number of different organisations and I’ve been interested in leadership for a long time. With so much known about what makes a good leader, it can be baffling to witness how few examples of good leadership there actually are.
One answer might be that there is a massive chasm between knowing and doing. People might grasp all the concepts inherent to being a good leader, but still be entirely unable to put those concepts into practice. I’m sure that is part of the problem – and a common problem in itself - but I also think it would be a waste of time writing a blog post explaining how to put concepts into practice.
The answer I want to suggest here is that leadership itself – the concept of leadership – is part of the problem. My idea here is very simple. If we accept as a definition of leadership something like ‘enabling a group of people to achieve a shared purpose,’ the problem with ‘leadership’ is that it places all the emphasis on one individual – the leader. But the matter at hand is not about one individual, it’s about a group and a shared purpose. The very concept of leadership shifts the focus away from the collective and onto an individual. Where the context is group achievement, as it so obviously is in 90% of the cases when we talk about leadership, this is evidently a fundamental failing.
Words matter. The way we describe things has the power to alter people’s behaviour. This is one lesson from Anat Shenker-Osorio’s wonderful book Don’t Buy It. (Great and insightful read - do buy it.) Take her example of crime. We might think that people’s views on enforcement versus prevention are reasonably stable, a product of their wider political leanings - those on the right favouring investment in enforcement while those on the left lean more towards prevention. However, how crime is described can have a significant impact on what people want to be done about it. When people read the description “Crime is a beast” and were then asked how they would want to deal with crime, 71% wanted more law enforcement. But when people read the description “Crime is a virus ravaging the city,” only 54% wanted more law enforcement. When crime was compared to a disease, people favoured preventative programmes to address it instead.
In another example from the same book, in the days leading up to an election, when people were asked whether they intended to vote, 50% of people said yes. However, when people were asked whether they intended to ‘be a voter,’ 87.5% of people said yes. Changing the descriptor from something you do to something you are meant a third more respondents said yes. What is even more remarkable is that 96% of those who were asked if they intended to be a voter actually went and voted.
The main thrust of argument in Don’t Buy It is that liberals continually lose the argument about the economy to conservatives because they unwittingly adopt conservatives’ metaphors for talking about the economy, and doing so they actually undermine the very points they try to make. (If you think we should intervene in the running of the economy, don’t describe the economy as being like a human body – something which rejects intervention.)
The way we describe things has the power to alter people’s behaviour. Metaphors and their connotations are powerful drivers of action, so what are the connotations of this term ‘leadership’? If we’re thinking about ‘leadership’ as a metaphor, I think the basic visual image of leadership is that of a line of people heading somewhere, with the leader at the front, showing everyone the way, and everyone else following. So if we focus on this image of leadership, here are a few of the connotations that strike me:
A leader has to have followers. (A leader without followers is just someone out for a walk.)
A leader sets the direction, while others follow.
A leader has to decide where the group is headed.
A leader is in front, while others walk behind.
A leader has their back to those following.
(I’ve always been uneasy talking about ‘followers’ when discussing leadership because of how passive that seems to make people, but the very term requires this coupling. If there is one central connotation to the idea of leadership, it is that of followership.)
Now I want very quickly to throw out some of my favourite ideas about leadership, to see the extent to which these are reflected in the above image of leadership:
“The very heart of leadership is making it possible for followers to contribute.” (Max De Pree, Leadership is an Art)
True leadership lies not in the ability to control but in the ability to trust – to trust others and to generate trust.
The best leaders are those willing to be vulnerable to their followers, as this courageous move inspires others to follow. ( Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones 'Why should anyone be led by you?, Harvard Business Review)
Great leaders push people to become better, not just better at their job but better human beings, achieving their full potential.
The role of the leader is to create an environment in which great ideas can happen. (Simon Sinek, Start With Why)
Contribution. Trust. Vulnerability. Personal growth. Culture. All of these are hugely important to the thing we call leadership, but I think it’s fair to say that none of these are suggested in the basic image of leading above.
Let me now switch to throwing out what I think are the most common examples of bad leadership:
Leaders who diminish their followers, rendering them dependent and childlike, by giving them little or no real responsibility.[vi]
Command-and-control – making all the decisions and telling others what they have to do.
An obsession with ‘vision’ and ‘strategy’
Leaders who see their strength only in. their alleged ‘power,’ thinking that they know best because they hold the most senior position.[vii]
Inattention to the experiences of the other people in the group.
If I can be forgiven for the mild cherry-picking, I think it’s plain to see how those examples of bad leadership both map onto and spring from the basic image of leading:
Having followers > making others passive.
Setting the direction > command-and-control
Deciding where the group is headed > obsession with vision
Being ‘in front’ > thinking they know best
Having their back to those following > inattention to the experiences of others.
I suspect the very term ‘leadership’ is part of the problem. So here’s my idea: we need to stop talking about leadership. At the Collective Impact Agency, we talk about 'anti-leadership' because we believe helping groups to achieve a shared purpose is phenomenally important, but we want to stop the relentless focus on 'the person at the top.' It's not an ideal term by any means, but it is at very least a marker to say 'There's much more to leadership than your position.'