Recently, I listened to the audio version of John Kotter’s 1996 book, Leading Change. It’s a good book–at least within the distractions of driving a daily commute and jogging on a treadmill. But this isn’t a book review. I only mention it because the book ends with an argument about how everyone’s a leader, etc., etc. This meme has struck me as a faintly ridiculous babble for as long as I’ve been swimming in the overwhelming tide of “business” rhetoric. This morning, I think it became clear.
The bottom line (another bit of business language) “leader” is a more 21st-century word than “manager.” It’s vogue. Rhetorically, its use feeds off of and makes the notion of a leader more appropriate in a business setting… After all, a “manager” cuts not a dashing swath through the unknown for the greater glory of the organization. A manager deals with the mundane quotidian activities that actually constitute business. But it’s not much to rally around. And, “follower” is pejorative–who wants to be that when you could be a “leader?”
The basic argument underneath the statements that use some form of the phrasing is that everyone in any part of the administrative (and, apparently, the operational) part of the organization can be and is, in fact, a leader. Being a leader, they say is not preordained by genes or a benevolent god, with only some being intrinsically leaders and all others followers. Everyone has the capacity to be a leader and should release that ability to be a leader within the organization. It would make the organization better, continues the argument. The essential syllogism is that (a) if everyone can be a leader, and (b) leadership moves organizations faster, then(c) there should be more leaders. QED
Sadly, this feel-good pablum has no substance and is not filling. By definition a social system (i.e., an organization) that is nothing but leaders (“hawks” rather than “doves,” if you prefer; “chiefs” not “indians” if you’re feeling more politically incorrect; “chefs in the kitchen,” etc.) is anarchy. Anarchy is not especially known for its radically rapid, directed progress. On those occasions when a social system marked by anarchy moves, it is a pure crap shoot to guess where that will be. Any board of directors or group of shareholders that endorses and encourages such a philosophy and practice ought to very serious re-evaluate how it marshals its resources and assets.
Then there is the whole feel-good, everyone-gets-a-participant-ribbon red herring that anyone can be a leader. Usually this ridiculous notion is trotted out in the form of a “nurture not nature” or “learned ability” or “no divine gift” statement–or extended discussion. The horse stands no chance of winning, but it looks really good for the audience. It’s appearance is, ironically, for effect only. And that effect is to convince people who are not leaders and are not in leadership positions that they are something that every shred of evidence would indicate they are not (at least within the structure of their work-day organization and social system). How empowering is that? Even if the notion were being promoted genuinely and with the objective of giving every non-leader the confidence to lead (which, usually, means “to act” without being told every single thing), you don’t need to be terribly cynical to see how the power structure is spinning the powerless.
I’ll concede for just one moment that everyone can be a leader. It is abundantly possible, I suppose. There is a time and a place for everyone to lead. That time might not be during M-F, 9-5; but everyone can be a leader. But just because everyone can be a leader does not mean everyone should be a leader at every given moment. I could regress back to the earlier logic of the essential requirement for a leader to necessarily have followers except in an anarchic system. But I see no reason for that. Typically, all systems are subordinate to other greater systems. So, let’s say that a middle manager in a functional department is responsible for a cluster of employees. That would make this woman that group’s leader. It’s true. Were the system only that large, she is definitely “the” leader. Alas, she is in turn one of a larger cluster of colleagues and their respective employees beholden to another leader. Ergo, she is a follower too. And she MUST follow; so her so-called leadership is actually managing the execution of her leader’s (and her leader’s leader’s) direction. And it’s turtles all the way up…
There is nothing wrong with being a follower. It is essential in any social system. Besides, if we were all paying attention, we’d notice the essential duality of role for anyone not at the very bottom or the very top of any organizational structure.
Finally, let’s just put a quick end to the whole business of God granting leadership qualities to born leaders as a set up for the argument that it is wrong and anybody can be a leader. First of all, in the Christian tradition, there is only one such character (and in Judiasm there is none). That one character is the Messiah, also known as Christ. And I think we all know how that worked out. Second, all those leaders that one could point to as being divinely created (at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition) were not. It makes no difference whether one picks Abraham, Noah, Moses, Saul/Paul, or any other such leader from the Old or New Testaments. They were all CALLED by God, not created by God, as leaders. There is a material difference. (It actually lends support to the idea that anyone can be a leader… so long as they are called to it. But that’s not my point here. My point is only to squash this idea of divine creation of leaders.) Third, at any given time when a called leader was leading, there was only one. When there were others, if you remember your early childhood Bible stories, things were not smooth or clean. Finally, even when just ONE such leader was deigned by God, the tribe tended to wander a long time without direction. The Good Book tells us that adding more leaders to the mix rarely made things better.
Leaders lead. Managers manage for the leader. For a leader there must be followers. It’s not wrong or bad. It is.