What is leadership? Such a simple question, and yet it has generated thousands of books and an industry in its own right. Everywhere managers are told that they need to be leaders – but leadership is nothing to do with seniority or one’s position in the hierarchy of an organisation. Leadership has nothing to do with titles. Leadership isn’t even necessarily anything to do with personal attributes. We don’t need extroverted charismatic traits to practice leadership. And those with charisma don’t automatically lead.
Leadership and management are not synonymous. They are two different things. Of course, good management is needed. Managers need to plan, measure, monitor, coordinate, solve, hire, fire, and so many other things. Typically, managers manage things. And leaders lead people. However, I would also argue that one of the major barriers to change we face today is that people think they have to wait for a ‘leader’ to emerge – somebody who ‘knows better’, the traditional ‘hero’ who embodies the future. I think the very opposite is true.
Over the years, I’ve learned to define leadership differently. A leader is anyone willing to help, anyone who sees something that needs to change and takes the first steps to influence that situation. It might be a parent who intervenes in their child’s school; or a woman in a rural village in India who works to get clean water; or a citizen who rallies the community to stop a library closure. Everywhere in the world, no matter the economic or social circumstances, people step forward to try and make a small difference. That, for me, is the starting position in understanding leadership – it’s about taking action, it’s about doing something, it’s about changing the world in some way. And leadership is also an act of humility – an act of service to others. To quote management guru Tom Peters: “Management is about arranging and telling. Leadership is about nurturing and enhancing.”
Today, many of us are ‘swimming in the same river’ – trying to cultivate collective leadership in diverse settings around the world even while our larger cultural contexts remain firmly anchored to the myth of the heroic leader. Even in the VCSE sector, there is still an over-emphasis on the individual ‘hero-leader’ which perhaps reflects our tendency to look to business for answers rather than developing approaches that make sense in an environment that is very different. Indeed, I would go further: we need to recognise the dangers and potentially destructive consequences of singling out the individual VCSE leader and heralding them as exceptional (1).
Our challenge is therefore to nurture a new type of leadership that doesn’t depend on the illusion of extraordinary individuals. The leadership of the future will not be provided simply by individuals but by groups, communities and networks. And these leaders must '… work to create the space where people living with a problem can come together to tell the truth, think more deeply about what is really happening, explore options beyond popular thinking, and search for higher leverage changes through progressive cycles of action and reflection and learning over time' (2).
1. Pennington, Hilary, Why Rewarding Leaders Might Hurt Collaboration, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Summer 2016. See http://ssir.org/articles/entry/why_rewarding_leaders_might_hurt_collaboration
2. Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton & John Kania, The Dawn of System Leadership, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2015. See http://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_dawn_of_system_leadership