Leadership or Fellowship

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’.”

The Ideal

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.

– Bob

Further Reading

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

  1. Vasco Duarte said:

    The thoughts in this post send my memory flying to two great thinkers in this area: @aritikka and @eskokilpi. Both have written and spoken extensively about a lot of the concepts that you mention here, and @aritikka was also the great person that I saw talking about alienation as a concept in a managed/led organization.

    Finally I’d mention also @apskarp whom i consider a pioneer thinker in the role of managers as creators of dialog that lets people reason about their organizations. Re:transformative causality.

    I think you will find many interesting ideas in the work of these thinkers, that may help further clarify and develop the ideas you touch on in this post. Good Work! Looking Forward to read further installments 🙂

    • Hi Vasco,

      Thanks for your contribution, suggestions and support.

      – Bob

    • Hi Derek,

      Thanks for that link. I read a lot of Umair’s stuff, but that one slipped by me. I very much agree with his analysis of the problems with leadership, As I tweeted recently: “If writing about leadership made a difference, we’d be the best-led planet in the infinity of Creation”. And his labels “20th century” and “21st century” organisations corresponds – more or less – with my terms “Analytic” and “Synergistic” respectively. (And actually, I don’t think the distinction correlates with time periods very well).

      And I tread a different path with respect to a proposed solution. Buildership seems a bit contrived to me, whereas fellowship seems more of an established – and relevant – concept. Constructivism has its merits, but being a replacement for leadership is not one of them, IMO.

      – Bob

      • I would love to hear more (blog post maybe) on the “Constructivism has its merits, but being a replacement for leadership is not one of them, IMO”.. That is I would love to hear your opinion. 🙂

        While I tend to agree about 20th vs 21st century not as good as Analytic vs Synergistic.. It tends to resonate better with people that are just thinking about these concepts for the first time. As there is already a lot of talk about comparisons of 20th vs 21st century happening in a number of arenas.

  2. The Dysfunctions of Leadership & Leadership breeds followership sections in your post made me think about a book I read few years ago: Kramer, J. & Alstad, D. 1993. The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power.

    It might give you some ideas to develop those chapters…

    • Hi Ari,

      Thanks for joining the conversation – and the book recommendation. I’ll look into it.

      – Bob

  3. Petter Abrahamsen said:

    I’ve been chewing the thoughts set forward a bit – trying to understand what I’m tasting. The thought that leadership might bring forward “unhealthy” relations between individuals (principal/agent relationship)  in an organization, and may in itself may be counter productive is understandable from a certain point of view. In smaller groups, where their is no perceived outer or inner threat, it is in my view quite possible to achieve the kind of states the Senge describes in his writing – I have been fortunate enough to experience the setting a few times.
    Unfortunately this happens fairly seldom and is in my experience only possible given some conditions, I will mention three; the group must not be under threat or imminent danger, the group must be heterogenous or at least able to achieve open and constructive dialog (common mental models as you put it), the group should not be under time or cost duress having to make quick calls regarding priorities. If these conditions are not met I believe most groups will fare better with clear leadership – this does not mean that the best results will be achieved but that action and thereby some result will be achieved.
    Think of a fireman brigade putting out a large fire – decisions have to be made quickly and coordinated to both do the job and do it safely. I know that trying to put out a fire could be possible in a group without leadership but all in all I do believe it is generally done more effectively and efficiently (not to mention more safely) by a group arranged with a clear leadership structure. In fact I think that you will find that groups that operate under these kind of conditions (firefighting, combat or other life and death situations) will want to establish a clear structure for making decisions and will willingly accept a formal or informal leader. Training and debriefing are important and ingrained parts of such organizations life making learning and progressing a continuous process.
    I think what I’m trying to point out is that the necessity for leadership can be situational – there are certain situations where things happen so fast that we as humans come to short in making good decisions collectively. In fact in some cases we would end up like the committee shown in the film “Life of Brian” – lots of discussion but no action. In some cases no action or to slow action will be more counter productive than the decision imposed by a leader, formal or informal.

    Still chewing;-)


    • Hi Petter,

      Thanks for joining the conversation.

      I agree that, on the face of it, fellowships is suited to gelled groups, under limited threat or absence of pressing duress (I count that as two conditions).

      But I am minded of historical accounts of e.g. the SAS, particularly in Aden and Malaya. In these campaigns, small (4-man) teams functioned effectively in the heat of battle without leadership – or officers. So I invite you to consider the advantages of fellowship is such situations also.

      I find myself agreeing that any such groups, in any circumstances, will likely need common mental models and a degree of familiarity, a.k.a. esprit de corps.

      – Bob

      • Petter Abrahamsen said:

        Small groups may be the answer.
        Bob you are absolutely right – there are examples where small groups function very well without a formal leadership structure even under duress ( your example is well chosen).
        Thinking about it I can’t not wonder if maybe the size of the group is one of the secret ingredients in achieving fellowship. Thinking back I have the strong feeling, that the groups I have participated in where I have experienced what you describe as fellowship, were small in size. If I was to put a number on it I would say a maximum of 6 people in the group. Anything bigger tends to bring out grouping within the group and thereby the necessity for someone to act as “glue” (or take informal leadership).
        One other thing that your example reminded me about – often the small groups you mentioned would be set together of specialists in different areas. The respect for each others expertise is maybe what makes a formal leadership unnecessary – every member of the group has an essential quality that all need making all members equal. Maybe this is a second secret ingredient. Again, thinking back, I have a strong impression that when more specialists within the same area are put into one group the necessity for formal og informal leadership arises to handle internal differences.

        Again – still chewing


      • Yes, size matters, I believe. I have been part of “teams” of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and up to 12, ~30, ~60(!) people. My experiences suggest that 5 is a sweet spot, 4 slightly too small, and 6 a comfortable upper limit (although bearing in mind that the Fellowship of the Ring was Nine).

        There was a recent HBR article on this topic too: http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/08/why_less_is_more_in_teams.html

        Maybe overlapping specialisms can cause problems. Certainly I have seen this when dialogue has been poor or unskilled. So maybe dialogue is a counter.

        And I also feel that we could increase the optimal size of a team to say 7-ish, in situations where the common (shared) purpose was very well-understood and commitment to it was strong amongst all team members. Although that begs the question, why would we *want* to have teams bigger than 4 or 5?

        – Bob

  4. This is very exciting stuff, and I would agree that boundaries of fellowship should be explored – while avoiding that dreaded ”multitasking” word!

  5. Pat Kua said:

    Hi Bob,

    Thanks for pointing me to your article. Interesting that the title posits an “opposing” implication between the two. I think one thing Peter points out the contextual points. I’m sure you’re probably familiar with the Situational Leadership Theory/Model by Paul Hersey. I think there are truths in all elements to this.

    • Hi Pat,

      Thanks for taking the trouble to follow my suggestion, and for joining the conversation here.

      Yes, I do see them (Leadership, Fellowship) as being in opposition, i.e. mutually exclusive. I accept that if one wants to continue with leadership, then Situational Leadership may have merits (context is everything, in all things?).

      But I propose that the power hierarchy implicit in ANY form of leadership renders it dysfunctional at best. See e.g. https://flowchainsensei.wordpress.com/2012/08/05/power-hierarchies-and-other-dysfunctions/

      – Bob

  6. Greg said:

    In your conversation with Petter you discuss the size of a team. I would like to point out another necessary condition for the fellowship to work – it would be skills or competence. On ACE you used the image of the fellowship of the ring. Now in your examples you mention SAS teams. I think that your ideal of fellowship finds its real world manifestation withing the groups of people who are highly skilled (possibly in diverse areas). Whenever there is a big difference of skills in the group leadership is inevitable. But if you assume that the ultimate goal of a leader is to create new leaders than it all goes in the direction of fellowship. My point is that leadership and fellowship do not contradict each other. IMHO the flaws of leadership that you mention are not intrinsic to it. I’d say they come from poor practice of leadership.

    • Hi Greg,

      Thanks for joining the conversation. You make an interesting point. My experience suggests that it’s not high skills, but equality of skills that fosters fellowship. Even in a group, team, etc with low-ish skills, so long as they’re roughly the same level, fellowship can emerge. Only when, as you say, skill levels are significantly mismatched might leadership offer value. (And for skills, I’m talking moire about social skills here, rather than technical skills).

      Are Leadership and Fellowship two ends of the same spectrum? I wonder.

      I’m with Meindl in seeing leadership as a sensemaking construct, with its manifestation exhibiting all the INHERENT (intrinsic) flaws (dysfunctions) I’ve listed here.

      – Bob

  7. Agree with 90% and would like to add the following: there is leadership that promotes fellowship and there is leadership that doesn’t. Leadership exists. So does fellowship. I see an “and” here, not an “or”.

    • Hi Michael,

      Thanks for joining the conversation.

      I feel frustrated by my seeming inability to clearly make the case for leadership and fellowship being mutually exclusive. I’m having much the same conversation with Pawel on this (he subscribes to your viewpoint on their non-exclusiveness). One day (soon I hope) the thing will gel in my head or my heart and I’ll blog on it further.

      – Bob

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