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.