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  • Andy

Do we need to think differently about leadership?

85% of employees worldwide are either watching the clock, sleepwalking through their day or they are actively spreading negativity to others. This is according to Gallup’s 2017 report, The State of the Global Workplace. I believe commonplace leadership practices are partly at fault. I believe we need a new and fundamentally different approach to leadership.

There are many directions I could take at this point. I could talk about how the power imbalance in the manager-subordinate relationship pushes that second person into a passive and dependent position. I could talk about how we continue to equate ‘leader’ with ‘decision-maker,’ removing this vital power from the people who know most about what will work and creating damaging bottlenecks in the process.

Instead, I want to focus on a more esoteric but a more fundamental idea – the fact that when we talk about leadership, we very quickly start talking about ‘a leader,’ assuming that ‘leadership’ is the property of one specific individual. Some of you might be thinking at this point, “Well how can you have leadership without a leader?” Let me explain.

Leadership is talked about all the time, but very rarely is it defined. Here’s the definition I use: enabling a group to achieve a shared purpose. Without a group, there’s no leadership – it’s just a person out for a walk. Without a goal, there’s no leadership – it’s just a bunch of people hanging out. (This is especially important for us in the community sector, as our organisations should all be more purpose-driven than any of the other sectors.) If the thing we call leadership is about enabling a group to achieve a shared purpose, why should we think this is the responsibility of just one person? My view is that everyone in the group shares this responsibility, and there are different skills each can and should bring to enable the group to achieve its purpose.

We are so used to thinking in terms of the hierarchy - which has a single person at the summit – that we forget this is not the only model that can be applied to groups and organisations. In fact, this model that conceives of ‘leadership’ ultimately as the responsibility of the CEO (the person at the top) creates many problems. You will see that most leadership development programmes encourage senior leaders to increase their self-awareness and increase their impact. This sends the message that leadership is all about them – their personality, their actions, their behaviour. I’m sure we have all encountered at least one senior leader whose ego has gotten in the way of the organisation’s ability to achieve its purpose. Interpreting leadership as the property of one individual (‘the boss’) actually serves to encourage this type of ego-driven approach.

Instead, we need to make ‘leadership’ about all the people in the group and about the purpose of that group. No one personality should be more important than any other. Every person has something to contribute to help that group achieve its purpose – and every member has a responsibility to be helping the whole group to achieve its purpose. We need to move from individual-focused models of leadership to group-focused ones. This doesn’t mean we have to do away with CEOs. It does mean we have to recast what exactly the role of a CEO is – making it more facilitatory, more about working with the members of the group to bring their unique skills to bear for the benefit of the whole.

This post was first published on the VONNE blog in November 2019.

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