The Nonsense of Leadership (Princes and Priests)

Leadership is a term used by many, but sometimes understood by only a few. Again and again I feel compelled to question ideas about leadership that seem to be based on beliefs, rather than science. In my opinion, there are two groups of people misinterpreting the term leadership, and I call them the "princes" and the "priests".

Leadership Princes

There is a group of people who claim that "leadership is different from management", in the sense that leadership is about inspiration and "giving direction," while management is about execution and "maintaining direction." Leadership is seen as something that takes place on a "higher level" than management, exemplified by cheesy diagrams picturing executive leaders above middle managers. (For example: see Good to Great, by Jim Collins.)

The problem with this view is that it disregards the fact that any person in an organization can be a leader in some area. Every employee can inspire others and give them direction, whether their passion is in architecture, coaching, GUI design, cooking, unit testing, social media, or World of Warcraft. Whether or not a leader is also a top executive is completely irrelevant to the concept of leadership. (For example: see Tribes, by Seth Godin, for a discussion of leaders and followers.)

The top-executives-must-be-leaders mantra also ignores the fact that shareholders want executives to manage their business. They don't need executives just to lead their business, because by definition leaders have no power of authority over their followers. Why should a shareholder give her money to a person with no formal authority in the organization? It makes no sense whatsoever.

Unfortunately, these days many "leadership" books, blogs and seminars turn out to be intended for formal managers, not for informal leaders. It is just old wine in new bottles. For executives it is trendy to call themselves "leaders," no matter whether anyone is actually following them or not. Managers use "leadership" as a social myth to reinforce their positions in the management hierarchy. I call them leadership princes (and princesses), because they think their position makes them more qualified than others to lead people.

Leadership Priests


Then there is another group of people claiming that "management in organizations is not needed". They refer to social networks, Wikipedia, Linux, and other great achievements of groups of people who shared purpose and made things happen. They say that self-organization is the best way to grow an organization, and that people "don't need managers," only leaders with a vision. (For example: Mind of an Anarchist, Dutch blog)

Unfortunately, this view ignores the fact that none of these examples are about corporations. If nobody owns the assets of an organization, then nobody is needed to manage them. But a business does have assets. Shareholders won't appreciate it when anyone in the organization can take money from the corporate account and fly to Las Vegas. And they won't appreciate it when self-organization decides to change their technology business into a catering service. Whether or not employees need managers is irrelevant. It is the shareholders who need managers of their business.

Another problem with the managers-are-not-needed dogma is that it attributes "goodness" to self-organization, completely disregarding the fact that Al Qaeda, the Gomorra, and (former) Yugoslavia are also fine examples of self-organization. People don't realize that, from a scientific viewpoint, self-organization is devoid of value. It takes someone with an interest in its outcomes to decide whether the results of self-organization are "good" or "bad".

But alas, many people think management through hierarchies is "bad," and leadership through self-organization is "good." I call them leadership priests (and princesses,) because they preach a belief in something that is "good," while there is no scientific evidence that self-organization alone has made our universe a “better” place to live in. (It would be the same as preaching that molecules are “good”. It makes not sense at all.)

Leadership Pragmatists


The reality of business requires us to be pragmatic about leadership. Every organization has to be managed, on behalf of its owners. And yes, it is nice for managers to have some leadership capabilities, but managers shouldn't think they are the only leaders in the organization. In fact, in the best performing businesses many leadership roles are taken up by self-organizing (and non-managing) people throughout the organization. On the other hand, these leaders must acknowledge that self-organization in a business requires a little direction from the owners, which happens by passing authority around through one or more layers of management.

If you understand my point of view, I might call you a leadership pragmatist. You understand that the management hierarchy is a simple necessity, and that the bulk of the work is done through a social network of leaders and followers. The leadership network is superimposed on the management hierarchy. Communication and inspiration flow through the network. Authorization and restriction flow through the hierarchy.

Every organization owned by someone needs both: the network and the hierarchy.

Next week: about Complex Systems Leadership Theory as a scientific view on the duality of an organization as a network and a hierarchy.

(images by ingermaaike2, nevet5, LeeBrimelow)

This article will be part of the book Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders. You can follow its progress here.

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