Feature Article: Reframing Leadership for a Postmodern Age

Mitch McCrimmon

McCrimmon photoLeadership needs to be reframed for a digital, postmodern age. The world is losing its static and hierarchical character. Life is now more dynamic, chaotic; final authorities have vanished. Leadership used to be hierarchical, associated with the power to dominate a group. This is biologically primitive because it occurs throughout much of the higher animal world. Our conventional image of leadership is also riddled with paternalism. A good leader, someone who protects, develops and inspires us is essentially a father figure. A bad leader, someone who is threatening or punitive, we might see as a mere manager.

Leadership has always been seen as having the power and ability to provide or decide direction for a group. This power has shifted from brute strength to the force of personality. The reality today, however, is that the power to provide direction is on the move again, this time to anyone inside or even outside the organization who can think up and promote good ideas for doing things better or launching the group in completely new directions. We live in a world of knowledge where success depends on the ability to win the war of ideas. Innovation is the primary driver of rapid change.

As we move toward a more dynamic model of leadership, we have to say that it is no longer about occupying a static position at the head of the group, but rather that which successfully promotes a change in direction.

As Thomas Kuhn noted in his 1970 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, entrenched theories have anomalies they can’t account for so they just ignore them. In the case of leadership, we have been fixated on what it means to be able to ascend to, and maintain, a position of power over people. This concept of leadership has led us to ignore a lot of other types of leadership because they don’t fit this model. Consider these examples where leadership does not entail being in a position of authority within a group, where leadership originates somewhere outside this position of authority:

  • Martin Luther King championed desegregation on buses, hence leading the US Supreme Court to rule such segregation unconstitutional. King was an outsider relative to the U.S. government.
  • The employee, who pushed Sony to develop and market Playstation despite their resistance to making toys, had no authority to enforce his idea.
  • Apple influenced Microsoft to develop Windows because of the obvious advantages of the graphical user interface.
  • A group of present day activists are inspired by Gandhi, long dead, to protest in a non-violent manner.
  • Tiger Woods leads a golf tournament half way through but loses the lead to another player in the third round.
  • The strategic planning department in a large company develops an idea for a new market by holding a number of departmental brainstorming meetings, then convincing the rest of the organization to get on board.
  • A new customer service person joins a company with poor customer service standards, carries on behaving as usual and, without realizing it, influences her colleagues to follow suit.

In none of these cases does the person showing leadership have any managerial authority over those who follow. In Martin Luther King’s case, he is an outsider. The Sony employee does not manage his bosses and is showing bottom-up leadership. Apple is a company not a person at the head of a group. This leadership is not even intentional. Leadership is shown between competing companies but they try to throw followers off the track. Followership in this case is to be avoided. We can follow dead leaders like Gandhi who clearly have no managerial authority over anyone. In golf, the lead can shift minute by minute from one player to another. The strategic planning department is a team, not an individual and, again, they have no line authority, being a staff function. Finally, all sorts of employees lead by example, as in the case of the customer service employee, with no authority to do so.

The only thing that all these odd kinds of leadership have in common is that followers change how they are working or move in a new direction because of the actions of some other person or group. This means, therefore, that leadership must be defined as the successful inducement of others to do something they would not otherwise do. In all of the above cases, however, the leader and the led are aiming at common goals. You could say that this is what it means to be a group. In a postmodern world, groups can consist in widely dispersed parties with common interests, like all software programmers working alone in their bedrooms around the world trying to develop new spam-blocking software. In this broader sense of what it means to be a group, we can say that leadership is a group function, one that induces change.

What does this imply for the person in charge of a conventional group, the CEO let’s say, where everyone is in fact working together towards common ends? I think we have to say that this person is a manager, that management is both a function and a role while leadership is only a function. Leadership is an occasional activity, something that the CEO also does occasionally, but it is now a mistake to use ‘’CEO’’ and ‘’leader’’ interchangeably.

I define leadership, therefore, as promoting new directions, management as executing them. To make sense of this shifting of responsibility to management, it needs to be upgraded to bear the load. Abraham Zaleznik, in his classic article of 1977, Managers and Leaders: Are They Different? painted a very negative picture of management as a controlling, mechanical function. It was no coincidence that Zaleznik was writing in the late 70’s and early 80’s. This was the time when U.S. industry was being traumatized by the success of Japanese businesses in the U.S. Pundits at the time went on the warpath, looking for a scapegoat to blame for the lack of U.S. competitiveness and management was fingered for this role. As a result, everyone called for managers to be replaced by leaders. This period also saw the beginning of a concerted effort to differentiate leadership from management. Up until this time we used the two terms interchangeably. We talked about leadership/management style – initiating structure vs showing consideration for people, theory X vs theory Y and being transformational vs transactional. Starting in the early 80’s we assigned the bad guy side of these pairings to management and the good guy role to leadership. Hence, leaders came to be seen as people oriented and inspiring while managers were disparaged for being task focused, controlling and transactional.

This move has been a disaster for both leadership and management. Now leaders must be inspiring – another anomaly. We know that leadership can be shown in a quiet factual manner, so why paint leadership into a corner where it must be inspiring? And managers can’t be empowering, people orientated coaches – their role is more like the police.

However, by defining both in strictly functional terms – leadership to promote new directions and management to execute them, nothing is implied about influencing style. Now we can say that leadership, especially when it is shown bottom up by a technical geek could be very aggressive and lacking in emotional intelligence so long as the person showing leadership can make a convincing case for his or her proposal. Similarly, a manager can be transformational if need be. An inspiring leader moves us to change direction while an inspiring manager motivates us to work harder to meet a challenging target.

In short, managers are facilitators, coaches, coordinators, catalysts and developers of people. Their task is to get things done through people to make a profit today. This way of looking at leadership and management lines up with the fact that all organizations have two fundamentally different tasks: to deliver today’s business efficiently and to create the future. The former falls to management, the latter to leadership, but modern managers need to be skilled, emotionally intelligent facilitators, not mechanical controllers.

What is the point of this excursion into management? Well, let’s summarize where we have got to and why. If we want a universally valid concept of leadership, one that accounts for bottom up leadership as well as that which comes from outside the organization, then we need to restrict leadership to promoting new directions. This means that we need to upgrade management to take care of getting things done.

So, why do we want an account of leadership that explains a lot of peripheral cases? The reason for the odd cases is really just to show that there are many such types of leadership that have something in common with bottom up or thought leadership. The real interest is mainly bottom up or thought leadership. This is the source of innovation in organizations and, hence of the leadership that will create the future. Gary Hamel, inLeading the Revolution, 2000, calls for those he labels organizational activists to be more aggressive in promoting their good ideas to their bosses. Unfortunately he fails to call these activists leaders. This is what I am trying to put right. Consider, also, level 5 leaders as described by Jim Collins in his 2001 book Good to Great. They are facilitators. His claim about ‘’first who, then what’’ means that these CEOs recognize that they don’t have all the answers so they bring together the best people they can find and grill them so as to draw new strategies out of them. This behavior is facilitative.

The important point about so-called level 5 leaders is that they don’t promote their own ideas for new strategic direction. As I see it, this move is a last ditch attempt to hang onto the myth that the CEO is a leader. The recognition that the CEO no longer knows enough to provide direction has led writers like Collins to redefine what it means to lead instead of facing reality (something Collins advocates), the reality being that the power to lead is inexorably slipping away from CEOs, from the one to the many, those who are more at the technical coal face who generate the good new ideas for new products. In my view of the world, so-called level 5 leaders are wearing a managerial hat when they are operating in facilitative mode. This is not to say that they can’t occasionally promote one strategic option over another. When they do so they are striving to show leadership. But this is my point: leadership is an occasional act, not a role or position.

So what? Well, the whole point of this reframing of leadership is that we need to recognize the real source of leadership within organizations today. Leadership as I see it is very ephemeral. It is based on having good ideas to promote, not something any one person can monopolize. Hence leadership is more democratic. It is not the type of power that anyone can use to dominate a group, to ascend to, or maintain, the top position, simply because everyone can generate a better idea at any time. It is like guerrilla warfare. Leadership can no longer be monopolized at the top.

A lot of leadership scholars today are talking about dispersed leadership. So, what is different about my view? As I see it, other writers who advocate dispersed leadership are still operating with a concept of leadership that is a confused mixture of management and leadership notions, one in which management as a separate function really has no place. Hence, for these writers, leadership that is dispersed is really no different than conventional positional leadership. It is still about taking charge, even if informally, and directing the efforts of a group toward a goal.

Am I not saying this too? No, for me, leadership has nothing to do with getting things done or managing people. Leadership sells the tickets for the journey, management drives the bus to the destination. I can say this and still acknowledge that en route, the passengers on the bus might get restless and need the reason for the journey resold to them. This calls for a further injection of leadership. I can also agree that the same person might be doing both functions, just wearing different hats when selling the tickets and driving the bus.

Some Counterintuitive Implications of This Reframing of Leadership

I have alluded to some odd implications of my view of leadership. Here is a partial list:

  • Leadership has nothing to do with getting things done or managing people.
  • Management is a role with responsibilities, leadership is not.
  • Leadership does not need to be inspiring, it can be quiet and factual.
  • Managers, conversely, can be inspiring, empowering coaches.
  • Leadership can come from outside the organization, including competitors.
  • There is no necessary connection between leadership and any particular influencing style. Hence being emotionally intelligent is only a situational influencing tactic. On the other hand, being a manager means having responsibilities hence requires sterling character and emotional intelligence.
  • Someone showing leadership could have zero emotional intelligence and be both too disorganized and too insensitive to manage people, but if he or she can make a convincing case for a change in direction, this is still leadership.

What it Takes to Show Leadership

For the conventional view of leadership, you need to be suitable to occupy a role that entails significant responsibility for people and other resources. This means that you need two broad traits. You need to be sufficiently persuasive to get others to accept you in that role and, secondly, you need to have the sort of character that is trustworthy. This is still true, but we need to call such people executives, not leaders.

In my reframed view of leadership, the key requirement is to have something new and useful to say combined with the courage to say it. Fundamentally, leadership is based on the human need to differentiate self from others by saying something new, by challenging the status quo. This is really just youthful rebelliousness, something we are either born with or acquire early in life. You can learn subtle influencing skills, but the propensity to rebel is not a learned skill set.

So, here is another counterintuitive implication: we can develop managers but only cultivate leadership. Conventional leadership development programs are really developing rounded executives not leaders. In fact, they are often turning people who are already leaders into managers. This is not a bad thing. We need people in charge who are good managers, so long as they recognize that this is their means of adding value. But we need to face the reality that leadership can only be cultivated by encouraging employees to speak up, to have the courage of their convictions and to be less afraid of challenging the status quo.

Contextual Aspects of This Way of Viewing Leadership

Leadership contexts vary in a number of ways, one of which is the continuum from those that are very factual to those where there is no right answer. The former includes technical and scientific industries such as health and consumer electronics where there is an increasing demand for ‘’evidence-based’’ decisions. Here, to show leadership, to promote change, it is essential to be able to make a strong factual case for your proposal. In this context, a strong case can nearly speak for itself, which means that there is less need for the leader to have strong emotional intelligence or interpersonal skills. For example, a technical product developer might promote a new product to her superiors with a very aggressive, blunt or insensitive influencing style. By contrast, in some contexts, such as politics, where there are few right answers, the need to be charismatic, emotionally engaging or inspiring are more important as a means of influencing people. Leadership itself does not vary. It is still the successful promotion of a new direction.

Then there is the continuum that ranges from those organizations that must innovate continually to prosper to those that compete mainly on the basis of consistent good service, quality or low cost. In the former context, leadership is essential while in the latter the requirement is more for effective management, where management is recast as a supportive, facilitative function rather than as a narrowly controlling one. All organizations have two fundamental tasks: to deliver today’s business profitably and to create the future. The need for leadership increases as the latter becomes more critical.

In Summary

Given the role of innovation in driving change, I don’t think we have any choice but to recognize that those who innovate and promote new ideas are increasingly taking a large share of providing direction to organizations. We can maintain the status quo by calling such behavior ‘’suggestion box’’ material that is provided for the ‘’real leaders’’ to decide on, but I think we need to make a much more fundamental shift in our thinking. As leadership becomes increasingly bottom-up, CEO’s become more like customers or investors than leaders. They pick and choose which new ideas to invest in as representatives of the company’s shareholders, but this is a very emasculated type of leadership if we can still call it that at all. Among the benefits of a more total shift in perspective is the fact that CEOs and other executives are now free to add value in more realistic, constructive ways. In addition, all other employees can become more fully engaged in determining the organization’s future direction. This move takes empowerment a step further and potentially improves the chances of retaining key talent.

Collins, J. (2000). Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Kuhn, T. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Zaleznik, A. (1977). “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?” Harvard Business Review, 82, 1, January 2004 (reprint) pp. 74-81
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Mitch McCrimmon has 31 years experience in the field of management assessment and coaching of which the last 22 have been in a consulting capacity. He has recently returned to Toronto after living in the UK for 20 years. He has written 3 management books, the latest of which is Burn! 7 Leadership Myths in Ashes, 2006