Leadership Beyond Leaders and Followers, part 2

In my first post I wrote about the interest I and some colleagues of mine here at CCL have in leadership in situations where there is no leader, that is, no person with more influence over others than others have over him or her.

I believe it is useful to understand how leadership can be something that a group, team, organization, community, or group of communities can do together without the benefit of a leader.  Why? Because I think working together in groups of peers without a clear leader is something that’s going to be happening more and more often to all of us.

But is leadership without a leader possible, or even conceivable?  Isn’t leadership nothing more and nothing less than what a leader brings to the party?  Isn’t it true that leadership without a leader is like friendship without a friend?  This is a fair question, and I for one won’t stop anyone from drawing a line in the sand and saying leadership is just what a leader possesses and expresses when he or she is being a leader, and it’s nothing more (and nothing less).

I won’t stop anyone from saying that, but I won’t agree with them.   I think the idea that a leader is the essential ingredient in leadership is still useful in contexts where there is clearly a person who has the most influence.  However, I think that idea is useless in contexts where there is no such person, because I think people still need what they get from leadership even when there’s not a leader present.  A group working together can’t just accidentally drift into getting something done.  They need to agree first of all on just what it is they’re trying to do – their shared direction.  They also need to get people organized somehow to do it – they need alignment.  And they need people in the group to be committed enough that they are willing to work hard when needed.  Any group or team or organization working together needs direction, alignment, and commitment.  In other words, people working together need the results of leadership even when there is no leader.  And if a group gets the results of leadership, haven’t they somehow “done” leadership and done it without a leader?

Most people have done leadership this way without thinking about it.  Take, for example, a group of friends deciding how to spend the evening.  Suppose they are all peers, and that on balance every member is as equally influential as any other member.  How does the group decide what to do?  They talk.  People throw out suggestions.  Others react: “Let’s go to that new Vietnamese restaurant,” someone says.  “I heard it’s very expensive,” another says.  “We could go to the watercolor show first and talk about where to eat while we’re there,” says a third person.  And so it goes.  By some mostly unconscious process that no one is paying any attention to, the group gradually comes to some kind of agreement.  They produce a direction for the evening; they make arrangements; in the best case, everyone is enthusiastic about it.  They get the same kind of results (though not necessarily the same decisions) they might have gotten if they had appointed someone the leader and said: “You decide.”

What I’m interested in is how the process seems to be mostly unconscious and not the focus of attention.  If the group saw “talking about what to do” as a leadership process – a process producing direction, alignment, and commitment – instead of seeing it as “just talking” or “arguing” or “letting everyone have their say”, they might pay more attention and learn how to do it better.

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About Bill Drath

Bill Drath is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, NC. Over the course of thirty years at CCL, Bill established the publications function, founded the periodical now known as Leadership in Action, was on the team that did the research behind CCL’s Awareness Program for Executive Excellence, and helped develop the original version of the Looking Glass Experience program.
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4 Responses to Leadership Beyond Leaders and Followers, part 2

  1. avatar Chris Deaver says:

    Bill,
    Great post. Very thought-provoking and definitely true. Thanks for the perspective. Leadership is more of a mindset than a person. Thus, a group can essentially be a leader. Although, having a clearly defined leader who happens to be a person does instill greater accountability and social pressure around someone taking responsibility, the blame, or the recognition.

  2. avatar Doug Riddle says:

    “they might pay more attention and learn how to do it better” …or they might not. I have the feeling, Bill, that some elements of these processes for naturally-occuring groups depend on the unconscious process. Also, in naturally-occuring groups these processes are mostly self-righting. A person who tends to dominate the decisions about which restaurant is told “we always do what you want” (either with a smile or a glare) and the group continues to define its processes in ways that sustain its self-definition.
    More interesting from our point of view are those groups that are instigated by others and constituted to accomplish a task or function. As they are consciously formed it is logical that they require conscious attention to the process of their formation and the allocation of power within the group to accomplish its leadership (direction, alignment, commitment) functions. Since this is true of the great majority of groups within existing organizations, it is the arena in which we play. At that point I agree with your preference for a more orderly learning process.
    In naturally-occuring groups, the messiness of “just talking” or “arguing” and the dance of defining the space between the members and the adhesion among them is actually the point: the relationship is the main event.

  3. avatar Bill Drath says:

    Chris, I agree that having a clearly defined leader can help instill greater accountability (of a certain kind), and it makes it clear where to put praise and blame. The old saying goes “When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.” I think this saying reflects outdated thinking about leadership, but this is clearly a challenge for groups trying to produce leadership without a leader.

  4. avatar Bill Drath says:

    Doug, Excellent point. There are no doubt important differences between “naturally-occuring” groups and intentionally designed (work) groups. I’ve been working with action learning teams recently. Because of their peer make-up, they have a distinct preference for working consensually . But because they are accustomed to working in hierarchical structures, with clearly designated leaders, they are a little over their heads at times in trying to produce leadership together as peers. It’s a learning process. Often, they are not aware that they are “doing” leadership, especially when they are frustrated with the process.

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