Leadership Re-framed

flock birds

Some years ago my boss told me, “You’re not the leader, Pam”. She meant that I wasn’t, because she was. Now, she was right – despite being in a given role I wasn’t “the” leader. The reality is though, neither was she – at least, not according to my definition of leadership.

What that particular leader shares with many others is an anachronistic interpretation of leadership which no longer stands the test of the contemporary world. Despite all the leadership preparation courses on offer, the self-perception surveys leaders do, the books people read, still the leadership myth prevails – the myth that leadership is about a person or even a select group of people.

The mythology has had alarming consequences: presumptions of privilege and power, with political leaders taking us into conflict; business leaders taking us to the financial brink; corporate leaders earning millions at others’ expense. Not all of course – these are the extremes, however, they are symptomatic.

Literature on the subject doesn’t necessarily help us. Although the cult of the hero leader may be debunked, in its place we have conceptions of transformative or transactional or authentic or participative or distributive leadership, all which when we drill down suggest that there is someone(s) who is being transformative, who enables participation or who delegates to others. Implicit is the notion of someone ultimately determining the agenda; still controlling, but in “nice ways”.

Well, I’m here to argue that it’s time to think differently so that we don’t simplify leadership to a neat, manageable definition but rather understand it as a complex system – a system that may be functional or dysfunctional because it involves a dynamic interplay between people within their contexts and bounded by a prevailing worldview. Leadership is about the dispositions of all the persons involved; it’s about the triangular interplay between people in particular roles, others and the wider organisation, and it’s about the prevailing moral code.

Viewed as a complex social system, the leadership dynamic happens at multiple levels, micro, meso and macro – at the individual personal level; at the intra and inter-group and at the organisational or societal level. Leadership as such is not invested in any one person or privileged group but shifts within and across the layers of the system – a system that is in harmony when characterised by healthy personal and organisational attributes and norms.

So does all this mean we don’t need leaders? Absolutely we do. But it is leadership that is nuanced to the times – generative and empowering; guided by ethical values; agile and responsive; shared and emergent. No less responsible or accountable, it draws on the integrity of the individual and the wisdom of the collective. We all play our part in a leadership system, and so no, I’m not “the leader” – and nor are you.

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