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What is Leadership?

In my view, we need to reinvent leadership for our digital age. The power to move people is switching to ideas because of the increasing role of innovation. We need to move away from leadership-as-position.

For me, leadership is an influence process and an impact. To see this, it helps to think about other influence processes. Take selling. It is also a process and an impact. The process of selling only leads to a sale if someone buys your product, otherwise it is merely an attempted sale. I use the word "impact" rather than relationship because, you can obviously sell things to people you never meet, as on ebay or through TV advertising.

We have a distorted concept of leadership because we focus exclusively on the business model where the leader is the boss and the followers are subordinates. But, as I discussed in my last post, you can show leadership as an outsider, such as when an independent green leader like Al Gore advocates green policies and a company with which he has no involvement decides to follow his lead. This is a perfect illustration of the point that leadership is a one-way impact.

Of course, if you are trying unsuccessfully to sell something, you might be influenced to modify your sales pitch based on the reaction of your prospective customers. But each new attempt you make to sell your product to these prospects, is still a one-way pitch that is either accepted or rejected. When someone buys, you have made an impact on them, you have achieved a result.

The beauty of this way of looking at leadership is that it becomes a very transient, occasional event, like selling or any other form of influence. Now, we can say that everyone can show some leadership occasionally. Say, for example, that you have no inclination to be a manager and don't have the organizational or interpersonal skills to get appointed to such a position anyway, even informally. But you could still show occasional leadership by working smarter, by setting an example for your colleagues or by making a suggestion that they adopt.

This is important because we need to find new ways of fostering innovation. It takes empowerment a big step forward if we can call front-line knowledge workers leaders when they convince top management to adopt a new product.

Isn't this just what everyone is already calling dispersed, distributed or shared leadership? No, these ideas are really just old wine in new bottles. They are talking about what everyone has always called "informal leadership" - which is virtually the same as conventional formal leadership except for the source of the person's authority. Formal and informal leadership are the same in that they both entail taking charge of people and helping them achieve a goal. My concept of leadership STOPS once the target audience accepts the need to change. It has nothing to do with taking charge or implementation. It needs to stop there, otherwise we can't make sense of how it is possible to show leadership to people you have never met, where you then obviously can't take charge of them or help them achieve a goal. Clearly bottom up leadership doesn't entail a front-line knowledge worker becoming even an informal leader, in the conventional sense of this term, over the senior executive team.

In conclusion, leadership, like all influence, including selling, is a one-off, one-way impact that, like selling, doesn't require you to hold a position of any kind to do it.

For more on this way of viewing leadership, see my book, Burn: 7 Leadership Myths in Ashes, 2006.