Sunday, October 9, 2016

If Everyone is a Leader, Where are the Followers?

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on...................."

We talk a lot about leadership: We have courses and university programs, seminars and coaches to train them, prepare them. Separately we talk about the idea of leadership.  We wonder where they will come from, how we can help them transition in and out of our sector.  We ponder their role in our success.  We have come to the conclusion that effective leadership is key to our success and everywhere we are concerned with our leadership future.

But for something seemingly so important to us, and with which we spend considerable time and energy to analyze and manage, I wonder if we have really thought the concept through.

What exactly do we mean by a leader or the concept of leadership?  When we talk about leaders and leadership, it seems like the category includes nearly everyone in the whole sector.  Is that right?  Definitionally, when you talk about leaders, doesn't the very word conjure up that there must be followers too?  If everybody is a leader, or potential leader, who exactly are they leading?  I'm not trying to be facetious here.  Sometimes I get the impression that we cavalierly toss about the concept of leadership when what we are really talking about is simply trying to improve the skills level of all of us.  That's reasonable, and an objective that doesn't necessarily imply that everyone who ought to have access to improve what they do is necessarily a leader, or will become one.  Sometimes, it appears that, like giving every little kid who participates in something like a sporting contest a trophy and telling them they are a winner, we bandy about the idea of leadership that everyone in every organization either is, or will become, a leader.  We have seasoned leaders and emerging leaders and everyone seems to fit neatly into one of our leadership boxes - you are a leader or you are becoming a leader.  As a sector, we are a nation of leaders.  What then does that mean anymore?  At some point the very word becomes almost meaningless -- unless, we give it some meaning by defining it.

If we are talking about preparing and training everyone to be good at what they do, and, in addition, to see the whole picture and act and react in accordance with that big picture then perhaps we are redefining what leadership really is, and what it means.

One might make the argument that leadership is vastly different in today's flexible, nimble organizational structure than it once was, and that indeed, each member of an organizational team might well be the leader in some aspect of what the organization does and how it functions at a given time, and a follower at another time.  Leadership in such a case must be a fluid concept.

Do we then not need some clarification of what we are talking about when the idea of leaders and leadership is raised?  And do we not need to understand that being a leader at times does not mean that one is automatically the leader at all times. 

If we consider the traditional definition of a leader and leadership -- implying the possession of qualities that allow an individual to move an organization or change a situation by motivating and moving others to action -- then maybe we do a disservice to some of our people and to our organizations by automatically assuming everyone not only wants to be a leader, but is one in fact.  Have we created a situation of entitlement to those who work in our sector that they are all leaders or soon will be?  Is this creating unreal expectations that will inevitably result in dissatisfaction and stilted ambition?  Is that an abrogation of leadership?  Or is this just a semantical issue? a tempest in a teapot? an issue that doesn't really exist?

Should an effective leadership program or approach have as one of its first objectives to weed and thin out the field of potential leaders to a group that already has some of the prerequisites to become effective leaders, so we can develop those people as leaders?   Or is this some kind of egalitarian issue where everyone must be accorded the mantle of being a leader?

To what extent is the success or failure of our organizations and of our efforts in the field due to effective or ineffective leadership, and to what extent is it all a matter of fate given that the forces that determine success or failure cannot be controlled?  Do we yet really understand what effective leadership is, how it works, and to what extent it can mean success?  And conversely, do we really understand the mechanisms and inner working of a failure of leadership - why it happens and the dynamics of the process?  Aren't those two variables important in trying to understand what leadership is?  Is leadership a quality or a learned skill?  If a quality, then is leadership a unique quality - a rare occurrence that we need to figure out how to seek and identify?  Or is it inherent within every individual?

We celebrate and cherish leadership victories, but spend precious little time considering leadership failures.  Have we only successes in our field - even if but a few?  Why don't we talk more about leadership failures?  Is it because we don't want to hurt anyone's feelings?  Is that a good attitude for an organization to have?  Do we end up sweeping a lot of leadership failures under the carpet because we don't want to, or don't know how to, deal with them so as to learn from them?  To what degree are our organizational failures attributable to a leadership failure, and to what degree to other causes? And what are those other causes?  Do we take leadership responsibility for failures, or do we seek to assign casualty elsewhere for our bad decisions.

Is the advertising of leadership institutes and courses available to everyone who applies a kind of a lie in that the truth might be that just because you want to be a leader doesn't necessarily mean you will be able to become one?  Or, is the promotion of (what we call) leadership opportunities of invaluable benefit to everyone in the sector not because it makes everyone a leader, but because it improves the ability of everyone to be more effective in their jobs by honing what skills they do have and giving them a larger lens through which to view not only their work but the work of the entire organization?

I am not sure there are any right or wrong answers to any of these questions, but I am sure that asking questions is essential to our better understanding of what a leader and leadership is, or ought to be, and how it relates to how we succeed or not.  And I think that's true at the organization level as well as the sector level.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

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