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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Let's update our language of leadership

For some time now the concept of leadership become increasingly more nuanced and varied. At one time leadership meant something related to command and control authority in a military style hierarchy where leadership was the product of being ‘right’ more times than being ‘wrong’. In the last 20 years, however, we’ve heard about visionary leadership, servant leadership, collaborative leadership, bureaucratic leadership, leadership by example, charismatic leadership, democratic leadership, autocratic leadership, narcissistic leadership, and transformative leadership (a more complete list is presented in Figure 1).

In fact so much has been written on the topic of leadership that whole sections of bookstores and libraries are dedicated to it; a quick scan of just the Harvard Business Review yields almost 8,000 leadership results, airports make a fortune on the latest flavour-of-the-month leadership books; business schools stake their competitiveness on their ability to produce it; and of course our entire system of public sector governance is rooted in it.

Figure 1: A Plethora of Leadership Styles

Traditional: Leader as Cause

Leader as Catalyst




elite leadership

visionary leadership

authoritative leadership

expert leadership

hierarchical leadership

bureaucratic leadership

decisive leadership

delegative leadership

consultative leadership

laissez-faire leadership

transactional leadership

task-oriented leadership

charismatic leadership

leadership by example

paternalistic leadership

romantic leadership

coaching leadership

political leadership

efficient leadership

change-oriented leadership

goal-oriented leadership

executive leadership

leader as theorist

cross-cultural leadership

situational leadership

strategic leadership

adaptive leadership

exchange style leadership

autocratic leadership

bully leadership

narcissistic leadership

coercive leadership

ideological leadership

totalitarian leadership

pathological leadership

despotic leadership

cult leadership

non-leadership - follower

collective leadership

team leadership

participatory leadership

relational leadership

emergent leadership

authentic leadership

servant leadership

empowering leadership

facilitative leadership

collaborative leadership

partner leadership

community leadership

action oriented leadership

transformative leadership

Level 5 - Quiet - leadership

learning leadership

dialogic leadership

Unfortunately the body of leadership literature has become so extensive at this stage that it has become somewhat unhelpful and problematic to determine just what anyone might mean when they use the term “leadership”.

Traditionally, much of what falls under the rubric of leadership involves taking charge, imposing, managing, dominating, controlling, providing answers, finding fault, persuading, correcting, punishing, rewarding, or inciting fear. Even among charismatic and romanticized leaders, it is the will of the leader that ultimately prevails, albeit readily, over the will of others. To wit leadership notions have traditionally been expressed in terms of the leader as cause[i], the master chess player directing (or often manipulating) a collective game while everyone else is relegated to the status of mere pawns - inconsequential tools to be used or discarded at the leader’s discretion. It is a concept that is heavily patriarchal at best and at worst, in its more dysfunctional forms, it has been responsible for some of the most unpleasant excesses in both organizations and human ‘civilization’.

More recently, however, we have witnessed a growing body of leadership expressions that do not fit this leader as cause mould. These newer concepts still envision leadership as a mechanism of coordination, yet that coordination is achieved not by someone taking charge or through the leader’s powers of persuasion or coercion but by the work of the leader as a catalyst of collective purpose, commitment and action among groups of owners seeking to cooperate.

In this conception, the element of leadership once described by Harlan Cleveland as “bringing people together to make something different happen”[ii] remains but the elements of control and dominance are absent. And just as importantly, these new incarnations do not uniquely embody leadership into a single person but describe it as an attribute that is frequently shared and circulated among a group of participants. Imagine if you will a board of directors or Cabinet comprised of equals who accede to leadership status depending on the issue at hand -- President for a day anyone!

Given the coordination challenge associated with environments where knowledge, resources and power are distributed, I and some of my colleagues have tried to make use of these multiple and varied ideas of leadership in discussions among leaders and academics but to little avail. What we find is that the command and control notion of leadership is well ingrained, often to the extent that when for instance the term ‘collaborative leadership’ is used, audiences don’t grasp the nuance of the leadership skills associated with the work of partners. The ‘collaborative’ adjective practically speaking just falls off. Audiences tend to instinctively fall back on the leader as cause notion with which they are so familiar.

In the end, our observation is that talking about ‘collaborative leadership’ or ‘facilitative leadership’ or ‘servant leadership’ proves to be a disservice. It simply perpetuates the confusion that the coordinating behaviour required among owners is indistinct from that applied to followers. Therefore when all people have heard is ‘leadership’, they tend to resist what they may perceive as an attempt to appropriate their ownership, thus making cooperation that much more difficult.

Then there are those leaders, such as GE’s iconic leader Jack Welch, who claimed a level of control and credit for change that was wholly unwarranted. As Welch’s successor, Jeffrey Immelt, famously revealed about Welch’s tenure at GE, “anyone could have run GE and done well in the 1990s. A dog could have run GE.”[iii] In realities where knowledge is contested, power is shared and commitments must be negotiated, the traditional role and behaviour of leader as cause role becomes radically constrained and claims by leaders of being ‘in control’ or ‘in charge’ are simply fraudulent.

Therefore I think it’s time we stop confusing managers, business leaders, bureaucrats and executive directors during discussions about collaboration and partnership and drop the leadership language entirely when we’re referring to leader as catalyst type of behaviours. Instead, I suggest we adopt a very old -- although not a very commonly used term nowadays -- ‘stewardship’.

Good stewards are ultimately bridge builders and relationship managers. Their principal task is to help to sustain the commitment that each employee, partner or collaborator may bring to the shared work. These are the self-effacing insiders identified by Jim Collins[iv] who put their organizations ahead of themselves and focus on surrounding themselves with good, committed and talented people.

One of the simplest and most erudite depictions of stewardship comes from Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic orchestra, who described a truly powerful leader as being someone who does not appropriate power from others, but, "depends for his power on making other people powerful”[v]. The more powerful, effective and successful he/she makes others, the more valuable and powerful they themselves become – the very essence of good stewardship. Instead of utilizing mechanisms of control, these type of leaders utilize mechanisms of generosity.

Looking at stewardship from a slightly different angle, Peter Block says leaders are created by followers; but that stewards, on the other hand, are created by owners. It is this reality of distributed ownership that sets stewardship apart because those owners are unlikely to pay homage to a single leader. There may well be someone, or even several people, who can convene, facilitate, and look out for everyone’s collective interest. But there is no single person that is in a position to control or dominate the group. Yet that same person may be immensely valued for his/her gifts of encouragement, inspiration, facilitation, education and conflict resolution in order to help others to cooperate -- not as followers or pawns – but as equals.

Therefore I believe that since the leader as catalyst idea is such a fundamentally different concept from leader as cause, the time has come to change our leadership vocabulary. Part of the challenge of awakening our social potential is in finding the right tools that allow us to work together more effectively. Let’s begin by using leadership to describe the control exercised by single individuals where they have the power, knowledge and resources to do so. But in the world of multi-stakeholder partnerships, collaboration and distributed governance, let’s be clear that we mean something quite different than leadership. What we really mean is stewardship. And then, maybe, if people begin talking differently, they might even begin to act differently.

[i] Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 2008: 41

[ii] Harlan Cleveland, Nobody in Charge, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2002:xv

[iii] Francesco Guerrera, “A need to reconnect”. Financial Times, March 12, New York, 2009.

[iv] Jim Collins, How the Mighty Fall. HarperCollins: New York. 2009.

[v] Benjamin Zander, Collaborative Leadership: Awakening Possibility in Others, address to the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, Davos, Switzerland, January 27, 2008.


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