How Leadership Works

Is leadership a role, a type of influence process or a relationship? Is it a combination of all three or something else altogether?

Leadership as Role


In our efforts to define leadership, it is tempting to see it as a role. Leadership is what people in certain roles do. It is a set of actions that makes them effective in that role. In a group, of whatever size, there can only be one top leader. Some organizations have two chief executive officers, but this is the exception rather than the rule. In small teams, there is only one leader. It’s not like a group of sales people, where every member can be a sales person. Being a leader in a group means being the sole occupant of a particular role. We talk about dispersed leadership but we really mean a form of sub-leadership, a hierarchy of leaders where one person is still the top dog. Such distributed leadership does little to water down the concentration of power of a conventional hierarchy.

Leadership as Influence


One way of moving away from the notion that leadership means occupying a role is to see it as an influence process. On this view, leadership is shown when one individual influences others in the group to act in ways that they would not otherwise. This is an improvement but it has two problems associated with it. First, many who see leadership as influence have not moved fully away from their role-based image of leadership. When they talk about leadership as influence, they often still have in mind the person in charge of the group who is doing the influencing. They may extend leadership to informal leaders but they still see leadership as occupying a role within a group. The second problem with this way of conceptualizing leadership is that it focuses on inputs. As a result, we immediately associate leadership with a particular style of influencing, normally one that is transformational, inspiring or considerate of others.

Leadership as Relationship

There is a growing feeling that followers play a more important part in leadership effectiveness than previously thought. On this view, leadership is a relationship between leaders and followers where outcomes are not so much a matter of a leader influencing followers in a one-way fashion but a joint determination that results from ongoing, two-way influence and discussion. Two arguments for regarding leadership as a relationship are: 1. Leadership entails followers. There can be no leadership without someone following, thus they are inextricably bound together. 2. Relationship skills are increasingly acknowledged as essential requirements for effective leadership. However, there are problems with this view of leadership. First, the idea that leadership is a two-way relationship between leaders and followers rules out showing leadership to people the leader does not know. It can be argued that Martin Luther King, Jr. had a leadership impact on the general population, the U.S. Government and the Supreme Court when his protests against segregation on buses led to its being made unconstitutional. This is one of many examples where leadership is shown without there being any sort of relationship between leader and led.

It is also reasonable to feel that King and non-violent leaders like Mahatma Gandhi are still having a leadership impact on people long after they are dead. Suppose a group of activists decides to conduct non-violent protests directly as a result of studying the actions of Gandhi. Is this not a leadership impact? Clearly, no two-way relationship is possible with a dead leader. Leadership, like all forms of influence, can be carried out on a face to face basis where people directly exchange ideas and feelings or it can be done at a distance. Think of advertising for instance or the impact of reading history. We are influenced every day by people we don't know and who are long dead. The leadership as relationship model takes it for granted that leadership can only be shown within groups where people are working together to achieve a common end. This is an assumption that is open to question.

Leadership as Outcome

To say that leadership is an outcome is to say that it is only shown when followers buy the influence attempt of the person striving to show leadership. The idea that leadership means influence is on the right track. We just need to free influence from position and focus on its output rather than the input. The point of this move can be made clearer by comparing leadership to another form of influence: selling. If you were a used car salesman, you might be a master of every sales technique in the book, but if no one buys your cars then you are not making any sales. Instead, you are only making sales pitches, attempts to make sales. A sale is made when a deal is closed and not before. When we add up our profits from sales, we are talking about sales that have been closed. Similarly, there is only a leadership attempt until followers have bought the idea the leader is promoting. So, on this view, leadership is a result, an achieved effect, an impact that worked.

All of our talk about what it takes to be a leader focuses too much on inputs. This is the manufacturing mindset whereby we decide in our own heads what people want and then make it for them. The customer-focused mindset recognizes that value is in the eye of the customer. The reason that there are no universal leadership traits – not intelligence, charisma or even integrity – is that what it takes to achieve a leadership impact on a group of prospective followers is totally dependent on what is important to them.

When we focus on outcome, it makes sense to say that influencing style is purely a matter of what works with particular audience. A group of engineers, for example, might only be convinced by hard evidence even if it is delivered in a dry, uninspiring manner. This way of looking at leadership also makes sense of leadership-at-a-distance, the leadership of dead leaders, or the green leadership of people like Al Gore who might have a leadership impact on communities all over the globe without his actually meeting any of them let alone having a two-way working relationship with them.

The word "selling" is sometimes used as a synonym for "influence" although selling is strictly speaking only a particular kind of influence. But focusing on "selling" helps to make clear the fact that it is a process that comes to an end the minute the sale is closed. Yes, a good sales person will cultivate a long term relationship with customers but that does not invalidate the point that a particular sale has an end point that does not imply helping the buyer implement what has been bought. There are important implications of this fact for our understanding of leadership. Because we find it so difficult to wean ourselves off the leadership-as-position image of the leader, it is common to visualize leadership as a journey whereby the leader takes a group from point A to point B and is actively involved in achieving the goal. But when we see leadership as a successful influence outcome, a closed sale, it becomes apparent that leadership does not necessarily entail any involvement in the journey itself. Instead, we could say that leadership sells the tickets for the journey and management drives the bus to the destination. This is a reasonable way of viewing leadership even if the merits of the journey need to be resold periodically enroute.

In fact, this is the only way to make sense of leadership-at-a-distance. Such leadership is not only not a relationship between leader and led, the leader has no involvement in implementing the ideas that the followers have bought.

The Bottom Line

In a knowledge intensive, highly complex and fast changing world, business has become like guerrilla warfare where leadership is required from all employees. As the power to move organizations in new directions shifts from positional authority to the ability to devise new products and services, we need a model of leadership that is not role-based. Leadership, in the 21st century, needs to be seen as an episodic act, one that merely promotes new directions. This sort of leadership has the organizational benefit that all employees can show it even if they have no skills or interest in being a "team leader".

For more on this way of viewing leadership, see my other Fast Company blog postings or my book: Burn! 7 Leadership Myths in Ashes, 2006.


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