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The Leader is Dead: Long Live Leadership


The word ‘leader’ is contradictory, confusing and potentially discriminatory. We should avoid using the word, and focus on ‘leadership’ instead.

The leader is dead…

The leader is contradictory

Current notions of leadership argue that anyone can demonstrate leadership, irrespective of position. In the words of Kouzes and Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge:

“Leadership is not the preserve of a few charismatic individuals. It is what happens when ordinary men and women bring the best from themselves and from others.”

Early in my career I worked in a team in which one of the administrative assistants demonstrated really impressive leadership. She proactively identified challenges in team processes, influenced others to recognise the challenge, and worked with other team members to find solutions. This certainly fits Kouzes and Posner’s definition of leadership.

So leadership is nothing to do with position or role. It’s about what you bring to your role: for example trust, influence and inspiration.

But when people use the term ‘leader’ it almost exclusively refers to a person in authority: the chief executive, the director, the ‘team leader.’ Similarly, when people refer to ‘people in leadership positions,’ or rename senior management teams as ‘leadership teams,’ they are associating leadership with position and authority, rather than behaviours that anyone can demonstrate.

Surely this is a contradiction?

The leader is confusing

I think part of the problem stems from a confusion about the difference between leadership and management. Conventional orthodoxy, as expressed by writers such as John Kotter, distinguishes them in this way: management is about control and security; leadership is about vision and change.

I am comfortable with this distinction. I am much less comfortable, however, with the distinction between ‘manager’ and ‘leader.’ This suggests that some individuals in organisations are managers, whose job is to establish and protect stability, whereas others are leaders, whose job is to promote change. Inevitably, the implication is that leaders are somewhere above managers in the organisational hierarchy.

In reality, organisations need managers at all levels to practice behaviours that, at times challenge existing ways of working and promote change (leadership); at others, establish processes to ensure stability and consistency (management). And, more importantly, organisations need managers to encourage leadership from individuals in the teams they manage to maximise team effectiveness.

To me, it is much more helpful to distinguish leadership from management in the following way. Management is a role – a position of authority delegated by an organisation to an individual. Hierarchical organisations typically have different levels of managerial authority: first line managers, middle managers, senior managers and directors.

Leadership is a resource – a set of skills and behaviours anyone can develop and draw on to get the best from themselves and others. Anyone can develop and demonstrate leadership; and managers need to demonstrate leadership to perform their role effectively.

The leader is discriminatory

One of the early attempts to conceptualise leadership in the 19th century was Great Man Theory. This approach analysed the characteristics of those considered to be great leaders – mostly military; exclusively male. It argued that leaders are born to greatness. Subsequent work on leadership has discredited this theory but, in my view, it continues to dominate people’s mindsets when they think about leadership (note the resurgence of authoritarian, populist political male ‘leaders’ in recent years).

This mindset is one where:

  • A ‘leader’ is somehow exceptional, out of the ordinary – a person us ordinary people are unable to emulate.

  • The characteristics that typify leadership are stereotypically masculine in nature: decisive, ruthless, dominant, powerful, assertive.

  • Leadership is about the power of the individual, rather than what happens when different individuals combine their leadership strengths in teams.


The result of this is too many individuals feeling intimidated by the idea of expressing and developing their leadership and holding themselves back; too many women and people from minority groups being overlooked for promotion because the leadership they demonstrate does not fit the kind of leadership the organisation values; individuals seeing leadership as an opportunity to consolidate and maintain power and control.

… long live leadership

The challenges of the early 21st century – including the climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and its social and economic impact, and the campaigns for racial and gender justice – call on organisations to provide leadership to respond and adapt. They are challenges that no one ‘leader’ can solve. They demand that we nurture and amplify leadership at all levels of organisations and societies: a leadership that is inclusive, non-hierarchical and ultimately more effective.

The Leader is holding us back from the challenge of leadership.

Will Campbell, May 2021

This is the first blog from Flint Collaborative, established in 2021 to support social justice organisations with strategy, leadership and culture change.

To join the conversation, follow us on Twitter @Flintcollab

 

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