Leadership or Fellowship
“The 21st century doesn’t need more leaders – nor more leadership.”
~ Umair Haque
I used to be a fan of leadership. I saw it as a way – maybe THE way – out of the dismal, bean-counter, management factories of the Analytic mindset. Although, truth be told, and upon reflection, even when I was running my own business (Familiar) I didn’t do much “leadership”. Even now you can go to my website and see my thoughts (as they were several years ago – and yes, I know, the whole thing needs a serious overhaul, for any number of reasons).
Update: 16-Nov-2012 I’ve now overhauled my website, so its incongruity is now consigned to the obscurity of the Wayback Machine.
And even recently, I generally took the notion of leadership as a given, and a “good thing”, without really ever thinking about it much.
But in the run-up to ACE Conference 2012, and the preparation of my keynote on the topic of Alienation, something began to quietly nag at me. With the opportunity to reflect a little more, and as I teased at the loose ends, the fabric of the leadership ideal began to unravel before my mind’s eye.
Fish in Water
“I don’t know who discovered water, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.”
~ Marshall McLuhan
This quote is getting a little threadbare now, I think, but still relevant.
The idea of leadership, and preoccupation with it, seems to be about as old as history itself. Much of modern society has come to regard leadership – at least, of a certain sort – as a noble and revered calling. Accordingly, there is a wealth of research, opinions, models, etc. exploring leadership. Not to mention the global leadership “industry”. It’s as if it’s the only game in town for go-ahead businesses.
Setting aside the specific issues of pathological leadership (Caligula, Genghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Gaddafi, et al), and the crimes committed thereby, I have come to believe there are fundamental flaws in the whole notion of leadership (however well-intentioned or competent). Be that Servant Leadership, Host Leadership, leader-as-coach, joint or shared leadership, whatever. To me they are all tarred with the same brush.
Leadership is a Sensemaking Construct
In his paper The Romance of Leadership and the Evaluation of Organizational Performance James R Meindl describes how the concept of leadership has all but transcended rational enquiry and passed into the realms of romantic myth.
In a nutshell, he observes that people overrate the value of leadership; external influences appears to have more impact on the performance of organisations than we generally assume.
“The significance placed on leadership is a response to the ill-structured problem of comprehending the causal structure of complex, organised systems.”
He asserts that the concept of leadership emerges from this sensemaking process “guided by the psychology and sociology of the observer”.
“The romanticised conception of leadership results from a biased preference to understand important but causally indeterminate and ambiguous organisational events and occurrences in terms of ‘leadership’.”
Let’s take a look at what we’re trying to accomplish in highly effective knowledge-work organisations. Dan Pink cites “Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose” as the key elements for intrinsic motivation in knowledge-work contexts. Anyone who has this software development thing figured out knows that great teams don’t need – or have – conventional “leadership”.
“When you ask people about what it is like being part of a great team, what is most striking is the meaningfulness of the experience. People talk about being part of something larger than themselves, of being connected, of being generative. It become quite clear that, for many, their experiences as part of truly great teams stand out as singular periods of life lived to the fullest. Some spend the rest of their lives looking for ways to recapture that spirit.”
~ Peter M Senge
Peter Senge suggests the ideal social environment for knowledge work is the learning organisation:
“…where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together”
~ Peter M Senge
Senge postulates five “disciplines” of the learning organisation:
- Shared Vision aka Common Purpose
“The organisational vision must not be created by the leader, rather, the vision must be created through interaction with [and between] the individuals in the organisation.”
~ Peter M. Senge
- Systems Thinking
“The defining characteristic of a system is that it cannot be understood as a function of its isolated components. First, the behavior of the system doesn’t depend on what each part is doing but on how each part is interacting with the rest … Second, to understand a system we need to understand how it fits into the larger system of which it is a part … Third, and most important, what we call the parts need not be taken as primary. In fact, how we define the parts is fundamentally a matter of perspective and purpose, not intrinsic in the nature of the ‘real thing’ we are looking at.”
~ Kofman and Senge, 1993, p. 27.
Which, to my mind, applies at least as much to the (undesirable) partitioning of roles into ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’ as it does to partitioning of the organisation into e.g. silos.
- Personal Mastery
“Individuals who practice personal mastery experience other changes in their thinking. They learn to use both reason and intuition to create. They become systems thinkers who see the interconnectedness of everything around them and, as a result, they feel more connected to the whole. It is exactly this type of individual that one needs at every level of an organisation for the organisation to learn.
~ Peter M. Senge
- Team Learning
“[In Team Learning] all participants must ‘suspend their assumptions;’ all participants must ‘regard one another as colleagues;’ and there must be a facilitator (at least until teams develop these skills) ‘who holds the context of the dialogue.’ [David] Bohm asserts that ‘hierarchy is antithetical to dialogue, and it is difficult to escape hierarchy in organisations.’
~ Peter M. Senge
- Mental Models
“Mental models are deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behavior.”
~ Peter M. Senge
And not just any old mental models. A shared mental model of how the world of work should work, with the nature of that shared world-view dictating the effectiveness of the organisation as a whole.
The Dysfunctions of Leadership
The concept of leadership introduces a number of dysfunctions. Rarely are these discussable or discussed in our romanticised conception of the mythological leader:
- Leadership inevitably produces implicit (or even explicit) Parent-Child relationships cf Transactional Analysis
“Just one of many examples of this type of parent/child exchange is the unwritten pact that if employees do whatever their bosses ask of them (regardless of whether it makes good business sense) the boss will take care of their next promotion/career move.”
- Leadership validates “followership” and thus increased risk of “social loafing“
- Leadership cultivates “learned helplessness”
- Leadership can increases alienation, tribalism and the formation of in-groups
- Leadership often encourages favouritism, patriarchy, deference, sycophancy and obsequiousness, with a consequent reduction in both the quality and quantity of meaningful dialogue.
- Leadership compounds and perpetuates the Analytic mindset
- Leadership subtly undermines systems thinking, by breaking the social body into discrete parts (leaders, followers), and focussing attention on those parts rather than on e.g. the relationships between them, and the whole itself.
“People hate to be managed, but love to be led.”
~ Scott McNealy
And people love sitting on the couch, with beer and pizza, watching a game on TV, too. This doesn’t mean it’s good for them (at least, health-wise), or productive. By all means, folks should be free to choose their own poisons, but from the perspective of the effective organisation, we might hope that we’re working alongside folks that do have some motivation towards the well-being and productivity of themselves, their colleagues and their collective endeavours.
So to Fellowship
I posit that, unlike leadership, fellowship is much more congruent with the ideal social environment for knowledge work, as outlined above. I recently wrote a post describing the idea of fellowship and contrasting it with the more established concept of leadership.
In conclusion then, I believe the idea of leadership has some merits – generally in the context of Ad-hoc and Analytic mindsets (cf. the Marshall Model), but popular mythology, plus certain pernicious cognitive biases, crowd out the greater benefits that fellowship can offer. I feel the Synergistic mindset offers a great opportunity to leave behind us the dysfunctions inherent in the idea of leadership, and thus open the door to the uptake of the idea of fellowship.
The Romance of Leadership and the Evaluation of Organizational Performance ~ Meindl, Ehrlich and Dukerich (1985 paper, pdf)
You Are The Messiah And I Should Know – Why Leadership Is A Myth ~ Justin Lewis-Anthony
Leadership Becomes Fellowship ~ Bruce Morton (MIX article)
First Break All the Rules ~ Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman
The Builder’s Manifesto ~ Umair Haque (blog post)
Leadership is Overrated ~ Rick McLaughlin (pdf)
Could Leadership Not Matter At All? – Forbes.com article
Good to Great ~ Jim Collins