Leader Is a Role, Not a Career Path

I’ve been doing a lot of reading and writing about leadership history and models lately. And, for a long time now, I’ve been coaching and listening to people who are in positions of nominal leadership or who are having “problems with the leadership” or who don’t want to lead (“be the un-fun one”) or who deeply desire a leadership role and are just trying to figure out where they can find followers and how to lead them well. At the same time, I hear and see all around me a general crying out for leadership and evidence of lack of leadership. It’s a pretty amusing picture when you think about it.

Several weeks ago I was at a meeting of leaders talking about an emerging kind of leadership and someone made the comment, “Everyone wants to lead, but nobody wants to follow.” Well, that’s a pretty difficult situation for a leader to be in, isn’t it? Or, have we just totally missed the fact that the nature of leadership is not necessarily about being the “fire-bringer,” the one with the one right answer? Could it be that, now more than any other time in history, we need a leaderful society, let alone leaderful organizations? And, could it be that leadership and followership are two sides of the same coin, that leaders must also know how to be good followers, to be sensitive their context and partner, assert, attend, encourage, and exhort, or drive, fluidly, in other words, to be able to both lead and follow the dance?

Leadership is resident in an individual. It cannot be assigned through a job title, and much ill has come from practicing such an approach to leadership. “Leader” is a role and can occur at any level of the organization. In fact, leaders at the first level of a hierarchy can ease the workload of leaders higher up—or significantly increase the workload of those higher rung leaders, especially if they are not aligned.

So, if “leader” is a role, not a job title or a career path, how variable can the acting out of that role be? Remarkably variable. Years ago when I was studying leadership theory in grad school, I was struck by the fact that the two archetypical leaders most commonly discussed in leadership theory were Abraham Lincoln and Adolf Hitler: that’s how variable.

If we have leaderful organizations, what are some of the benefits? If leadership culture in the organization aligns around strong dialogue skills, highly valuing effective conflict (and knowing what’s effective), are stewards of not only the organization’s financial assets but its vision and purpose, and value humaneness over process-based excellence, leaderful organizations are more likely to nurture Lincolns than Hitlers. And, leaderful organizations are more likely to be able to beat the decision quality and decision latency metrics that non-leaderful organizations are challenged to succeed with.

What are some of the risks? Leadership becomes a high contact sport where effective leaders can emerge at any level of the hierarchy even if they are not authorized to do so. Use of authority as a means of getting things done becomes counterproductive and those who unreflectingly genuflect to authority may find they have been looking the wrong way. The rigors of continuous learning, the underpinning of continuous improvement, must be engaged, and there is progressively less shelter for those who cannot or will not step up to this demand. A period of apparent chaos may occur as the organization makes this shift; either speed or slowness in the shift can be a natural environment for the emergence of this chaos, depending on the organization’s culture and constituents present at the time. People who cannot actually lead, as opposed to be successful at attaining a nominal leadership title, may come under unacceptable pressure.

Ultimately, we are in a pretty wicked fix in the world at large today, and in many organizations, no less so. Things change quickly and often in ways we later realize we couldn’t have expected. Having a company of leaders all working daily on getting better together by focusing on their connections to each other and their personal professional practice can position us to sustain the next wave without being splintered by it.

Simply setting up shop as a “leader” or looking to “the leadership” to keep us all safe and dry isn’t likely going to get us to the next port. Not doing our part to lead the organization, in time, turns us into baggage rather than crew. We need all hands on deck. Leadership is required of everyone on a daily basis in their own lives, and in their organizations very often, as well. Everyone must develop and exercise the skills of integral engagement so that:
• your life doesn’t just happen to you;
• association with you is a benefit to your associates and the organization as a whole;
• you walk in alignment with the purposes you commit your precious life energy to;
• you listen and speak up constructively when purpose and action are not aligned;
• your continuous learning makes the world and the organization a better place;
• the context you are aware of extends well beyond your fingertips; and
• you contribute to and participate in everyone getting better together while in pursuit of the organization’s purpose.

Showing 2 comments
  • Bob Lieberman

    My experience is that “everyone wants to follow but nobody wants to lead”.

    • Jean Richardson

      Well, that happens, too. And, when it does, I always like to inquire into why that is. If this is the dominant paradigm in an organization, what’s going on that no one wants to speak up? Did they actually recruit for compliant behavior, for instance?

      That said, I can also align with the notion that too many of us don’t do the necessary critical thinking to engage in a life well lived. This is why I’ve started talking about Pervasive Leadership.

      Leadership does require risk taking and engaging with conflict. Many people have been taught more about compliance with authority than they have about thinking, the learning process, and engaging in conflict in a way that deepens relationship rather than kills it.

      What is your sense of why “everyone wants to follow but nobody wants to lead?”

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