Leadership Beyond Leaders and Followers

A lot of people think of a leader as a person who influences other people more than other people influence her or him.  This extra increment of influence might come from the leader’s superior knowledge, inspiring vision, personal magnetism, greater experience, or a whole range of other factors that tend to make one person more influential than the others with whom he or she works.  Based on this view of the leader, leadership is often defined as the interpersonal process by which a person with an extra increment of influence (a leader) interacts with others (followers) to accomplish shared goals.

Allowing for the fact that this may be a bit of an oversimplified picture of leadership, it raises what I think is an increasingly important question.  What about situations in which there is no person capable of generating that extra increment of influence?  Examples might include a self-managed team; a family where the parents are aging and the children are grown-ups in their own right; a cross-functional task force where several functional leaders are expected to share leadership; a community coalition comprising peers from different organizations and walks of life; or a group of friends trying to plan a vacation together. In general, such situations are characterized by a group of equals in which everyone has about the same amount of influence as everyone else.  In such groups there is no clear leader (as defined by extra influence), and thus there are no followers. But does that mean there is no leadership?

Such situations are getting more common.  Ask someone who manages a team of knowledge workers, highly-paid professionals, or experts in their own field.  Ask someone who has served on a regional development commission.  Ask someone who has been part of a team operating with a consensus decision model.  They could tell you about the need to reach shared goals without a clear leader.

As a person who spends time thinking about leadership and how to develop it, I want to pay more attention to this kind of situation.  I want to be able to frame leadership without automatically starting with a leader and followers.  Of course, there will always be leaders and followers in most situations, and so understanding leaders and followers will always be important.  I’m focusing here on those situations in which leadership is called for, but there are no clear leaders and followers.

Some of my colleagues and I here at CCL have been thinking about leadership beyond leaders and followers by framing leadership in terms of its outcomes: Leadership is about producing agreement on direction, a framework for alignment, and a sense of commitment to the collective work.  So, whenever people working together produce direction, alignment, and commitment, we say leadership has happened – even if there was no leader.  Instead of asking “How do leaders influence followers?” we have been asking “How do people with shared work produce direction, alignment, and commitment?”  A lot is already known about how people produce DAC through the influence of a leader.  What is less clear is how people produce DAC when there is no leader.   The need for leadership beyond leaders and followers is growing.  We want to understand better how it can work and how people can accomplish their shared goals when no one is in charge.

In future posts, I’m going to be exploring this idea of leadership beyond leaders and followers.  So, let me hear about your reactions to this idea and especially about any examples of situations in which such an approach to leadership is needed.

4 thoughts on “Leadership Beyond Leaders and Followers

  1. I wonder if part of what we’re dealing with is the legacy of hierarchical group organizations based on tribal or military models. In groups with a persistent function (warfare or defense, for example) and in which there are distinctive differences in power, we can typically identify “a leader.” That leader persists in the role until overthrown by younger, stronger followers or by disgruntled peers who collectively hold as much power.
    In most democratic environments, in which power is deliberately dispersed, leading is a moveable feast. Different aspects of direction, alignment, and commitment are generated by different actors in turn based on a wide variety of power dynamics (more aligned with what Bill here calls “influence.” The cynic might say influence is what you have when you can’t claim enough power). Power dynamics are what we see when we imagine a group mind or group-as-a-discrete-whole rather than a collection of individuals.
    When one moves to a description of the dynamics of work teams or any kind of group (that is) functioning in the complex worlds that grew up with human urbanization, the kinds of power that matter (knowledge, seniority, access to resources, creative solutions, energy, enthusiasm or passion, etc.) operate in a complicated dance of give and take. Charting the movement of “leadership” in such groups would result in something like an orchestra score: different groups and individuals taking the themes, running counterpoint, building a common experience and common results out of a million individual acts. Is leadership the score or the conductor? With no conductor and the score written during the performance, the old terminology of leaders and followers gets fuzzy edges.

  2. On page 335 of this Rand Corp report (http://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR1382/MR1382.ch10.pdf) there’s a description of a form of “swarming” group behavior regarding the Critical Mass bicycle celebrations in San Francisco. My wife and I and a couple of friends participated in one this week in San Diego in which the police estimated about 1300 riders participated. I think it raises interesting questions about the nature of leadership in the absence of “leaders.” (the page number is on the top right-hand side of the page. Since this is a .pdf, the page in your reader program (Acrobat, for example) is #27.

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