For much of my career, I would find myself angry with leaders who placed their personal interests above all else, whose courage failed them when faced with great needs for showing leadership, whose actions and direction resulted in economic or moral harm to those they led, whose commitment and focus were compromised or fractured in a way that caused them to under perform, or who withheld information which (had it been shared with the work group) could have been dealt with more effectively than the leader could deal with it on his or her own. My anger was pointless and unhelpful.
Finally, in the midst of leading a high profile and politically charged government project, it dawned on me that these leaders might occupy positions in the hierarchy that really had little to do with their skill as leaders. We are desperate for leadership, and there are many leadership roles to be filled in any organization. Sometimes we fill them with nominal leaders.
As I talk with organizations and attendees at conferences or public events about Pervasive Leadership, I not infrequently hear people refer to “the leadership” or “the leadership team” as something outside themselves, and, no doubt, that is how they think of these team leaders, managers, administrators, and executives who have been hired to lead.
However, everyone knows a so-called leader whom no one follows or whose example is not one that advantages the organization or the people who comprise the organization in the long run. Perhaps they are that person themselves.
People who do not lead but are occupying roles in organizations identified as leadership roles are “nominal leaders”—leaders in name only. These are not necessarily “bad people,” though we may deride them at the proverbial water cooler. They are simply individuals who have risen above their competency or who have achieved a role out of alignment with their aptitudes, predilections, or actual role preferences.
When nominal leaders occupy “leadership roles” in organizations, the organization is endangered. The need for Pervasive Leadership is clear because leaderful organizations are inoculated against lack of leadership through having a wealth of leaders to step into the breach when leadership is called for—as it is every day.
When we place the primary locus of leadership outside ourselves, we cooperate in a dynamic that stunts our own human potential and attempts to place a burden on others which they cannot carry. In effect, we collude in creating nominal leaders. When we see a leadership gap and do not responsibly seek to fill it through either our own efforts or by encouraging leaders in the organization, we participate in creating our own troubles.