Leadership is a fashionable hat

image from ibtimes.co.uk

The recent trend towards leaders and leadership is a curious thing. In the (even recent) past it was never given much thought. This is not to say that people didn’t “lead”, but it wasn’t called out with such grandiosity and pomp until recently. It was just part of what some, perhaps even many people did for a job, e.g. film directors, sports coaches, teachers, community workers, choreographers, town councillors, even MPs. Fill in the blanks. As a matter of fact in these and most other industries it is still just that: an aspect of one’s job. In the world of business however, and especially in the realm of knowledge work “leader” has become a title in and of itself, and increasingly a title claimed by individuals for themselves.

That leadership is specific to the business world is highlighted, albeit unintentionally, by the Harvard Business Review in its effort to draw “leadership inspiration” from other fields [ref]. The best it can come up with are clichés and banalities from people such as Goldie Horn, Andre Agassi and Salman Rushdie, none of whom have ever described themselves as leaders.

Leadership is a fashionable hat, designed by management experts and consultants, who intend to sell many of them, and stay in production for a long time. These consultants are witnessing their clients (and potential clients) throwing away their traditional management hats, considering them old-fashioned, and burdensome. A hip new look for the 21st century is required—and one size fits all.

But cute metaphors aside, what exactly is leadership? What is a leader? As I’ve written previously, the despots of history were (and those alive still are) considered leaders. Military generals who direct people to certain death are leaders. Donald Trump is about to lead the USA, and terrifyingly many other dependent countries. We also recognise people willing to die for a cause as leaders (as many actually did, e.g. Gandhi, M.L. King, Bobby Sands, Osama bin Laden, Jesus of Nazareth…) The child in front of a game of “follow the leader” is, by definition, a leader, as is the person with the highest score in a computer game. Clearly it is a term for all seasons. Which renders it rather meaningless. A popular phrase these days is “leaders go first”, but this is a trance-inducing tautology, and adds nothing to our actual understanding.

It is worthwhile though to separate the idea of self-designated, permanent leader from the idea of leader being a shifting, ephemeral role, one potentially carried out by any member of a group, given appropriate context. It is this need to fix leadership to a single person, and make it permanent that is the cause of so much dysfunction and unhappiness in the world. As Peter Block once noted, no sooner is the new president (of the USA) elected then people start to complain. The voters are now stuck with that leader, because the system doesn’t allow for emergent leadership, and in our desire to follow we have willingly partaken in a huge charade, cleverly designed to disempower us. That’s western democracy in a nutshell. It’s our model for leadership. And it is massively broken.

If we are going to use this term in the 21st century, in an industry such as knowledge work which is looked to for inspiration of how to do business, then we need to reinvent it. Leader is not a title to claim for oneself, it is a temporary role offered to (or requested of) a person of integrity and good standing in his or her community. It is always contextual, and should always be temporary. To lead is a verb. We don’t need the nominalisation of this verb to encourage the action, indeed, promoting the terms “leader” and “leadership” actually prevents people who do not bear that title from leading and instead are encouraged to become passive followers. Leaders require followers, and are nothing without them, but the modern world does not need followers. It needs thinkers, citizens, people who care, serve, take risks, confront. That’s all of us, not the self-designated leaders.

Embrace the verb and scorn the noun. It is action that matters, not grandiose titles.

More thoughts on leadership:
Leadership Snake Oil and Citizenship over Leadership

More stories by Tobias Mayer