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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  • YvesHanoulle

    I agree that you might need people to manage your assest, for me the best people to manage the assest, are not the typical manager, but more the management assistants.
    I don´t agree that there are no assest to manage in the open source community. Some of the most succesfull open source projects, do have assest. (Wikipedia is a good example of this)
    I think a lot of shareholders are giving their money to people they follow. (people they think are visionairy) I personally wil never give my monbey to a company that it´s a manager and not a leader. Because I´m giving my money for the long run. I expect more result with a leader.
    I trust a leader to lead. I trust that a leader will lead a team, and when a team does not follow I expect that good leader learn´s from it, and works with the team to find a solution. Not to force people to do the stuff he wants them to do.
    I do this, because I believe that any team is smarter then it’s leader/manager.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    The person you’re giving your money to may lead the people, but he/she will manage the money.
    And I didn’t mean that there are no assets in an open source community. I meant that they are not owned by someone (outside of the group).

  • Joe Marchese

    Thanx for sharing your perspective,Jurgen. One of the reasons discussions about management and leadership are often unproductive is that we seldom have agreement on what those attributes and roles mean. Everyone sees management and leadership through the lens of their own experience and values, and too often we just talk past each other. I agree that leadership is not restricted to those at the top of the pecking order, and indeed, organizations work best when they are inclusive and devolve authority as much as makes sense in their circumstances. For me, management is the architecture that makes organizations works,and functional areas such as IT, finance, sales, service, product management, etc., are services delivered in the architecture. Management is essential, but its framework is not prescritive, though there are excellent management systems to adopt that allow local adaptation of key principles.
    I welcome feedback on this, and other thoughts on the topic:
    Thanx again for perspectives… keep ’em coming.

  • Buddy Casino

    What about family-owned/run businesses? There are no shareholders in this case. This is pretty common in germany.
    Research suggests that family run businesses are on average twice as profitable as public companies. And as you probably know too, often the wrong type of guy rises in a hierarchical organization, see Fabrice Tourre of Goldamn Sachs fame.
    So while management might be a necessity, the interesting question is: how to pick seperate the good guys from the bad ones?
    Bureaucracy and middle management can kill a corporation. Sony and Microsoft were once dynamic techie firms, and we all know what has become of them.
    Btw., you blog comment stuff is broken. Posting with Firefox or IE doesn’t work,

  • Jurgen Appelo

    Anyone can do with his own business whatever it is that pleases them. I don’t think that family-owned businesses are much different (the family members are the shareholders). The owners manage their business, or they hire people (a management team) to manage it for them.
    It is then up to the management team to decide how leadership is going to help them grow their business. Some top managers want to be the leaders, other top managers decide to delegate leadership to others. Both are valid options.

  • Celina Macaisa

    Thanks for your effort in trying to remove the split between managers & leaders and vise-versa. And to bringing the leaders’ feet back to the ground—and working ‘with’ their employees, and not just formulating elegant but out-of-touch strategies.
    And thanks for making me question business ideas that I have oversimplified and to try to see how seemingly ‘opposite’ business ideas such as “collaborative & heirarchical’— balance & make each other work.
    Dianne Crampton’s book, “TIGERS Among Us — Winning Business Team Cultures And Why They Thrive” also features real life examples of inspiring business leaders who are also great operational managers such as Tony Hsieh of Zappos, Elizabeth Baskin of Tribe, Inc. and etc.
    These leaders have management systems in place to provide direction and ground rules to maximize productivity from collaboration. The book like your blog post offers excellent, pragmatic advice on how managers can ‘be leaders’ or lead effectively within a collaborative culture.

  • Sergio

    Says it all:
    “The most important difference between a great manager and a great leader is one of focus.
    Great managers look inward.
    Great leaders, by contrast, look outward.”


    Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. I want to publish your post – I’ll shoot you (hear me out) an email with a formal request for permission to republish… Thanks for the insights!

  • Karin Lindner

    What a great post. I love it and I agree with you 100 %.
    The world needs more leaders and unfortunately I have to say that I know more without a title than with a title. 🙂
    In my line of work companies are very excited to hire me to fire up their workforce but when management starts to realize that they have to start working on themselves the fun starts to fade….
    If you are interested, please watch my perspective on this video!
    Keep up the good work!


    Everything said here is true, from the perspective of each writer. Its a beautiful thing leadership, its an art more than a science. This means there is no right way or wrong way – the only way is the way that works for you or for me. This suggests that the ability to adapt, to learn from one’s mistakes, to be open to the possibilities is far more important than titles of ‘leadership’ or ‘management’ or ‘princes’ or ‘priests’.
    The risk we run when we attach labels to something, even with the best intentions, can be that we unconciously narrow our own focus and thinking.
    John Coxon

  • shashi

    Excellent Post

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