Leadership, as normally conceived, is an intra-group phenomenon: leaders occupy roles within groups, either formally or informally. Being role occupants, leaders are reference points for the resolution of group issues. From their dominant position within the group, they have authority to make decisions that affect the group’s well-being.
But this role-based model makes it hard to comprehend isolated leadership acts by people who are not even informally in leadership roles or, worse, not even members of the group to which they show leadership. For example, how are we to understand the leadership impact that Jack Welch had on organizations around the globe who never even knew him? Many of his ideas, like being first or second in a market, influenced numerous organizations to change their ways although he was never recognized as even their informal leader. What about the green leadership impact of Al Gore on communities he knows nothing about? Then there is leadership between groups, such as when the actions of one country lead another to follow suit.
We talk of “the world community” where innumerable sub-groups influence each other. Large countries such as China, Russia and the U.S. have occasional leadership impacts on other countries without being regarded as their “informal leader.” In business, many organizations are “boundaryless,” meaning that there is only a fuzzy boundary between them and their strategic partners. We now have fragmented groups, loose networks or federations where leadership can be shown on a one-off basis from one sub-group to another. A case could be made that, today, inter-group dynamics are just as important as those within groups. So, we need a model of inter-group leadership to help us understand this increasingly important phenomenon.
What is Inter-Group Leadership?
Inter-group leadership can be shown by both groups and individuals. Continuing with the green theme, if one country adopts bold, innovative policies to reduce carbon emissions, its initiative could have a leadership impact on other countries. This is an instance of one group leading another (inter-group leadership). The examples of Jack Welch and Al Gore illustrate how individuals can show leadership to groups of which they are not members. A further individual example is Martin Luther King’s leadership impact on the U.S. Supreme Court when his demonstrations against segregation on buses led that organization to rule such discrimination unconstitutional. King was not a member of the Supreme Court, hence neither a formal nor informal leader within this group. This is not informal leadership in the conventional sense because it entails an individual personally taking charge of a group.
Inter-group leadership can also occur between competing groups, such as teams in a sports league and businesses competing in the same market. We talk about the league-leading team in football or hockey, for example, and Tiger Woods leading a golf tournament after the third round. Apple Computer has had a leadership impact several times on Microsoft and other competitors. By contrast, conventional role-based leadership always implies a collaborative effort within a single group.
Inter-Group Leadership Defined
Because it operates at a distance, stops when the tickets for the journey are purchased, and does not entail a working relationship with followers, we can only say that the meaning of leadership is to successfully promote a change in direction to a group where group members choose to follow of their own free will.
Features of Inter-Group Leadership
Here are the key features of inter-group leadership as shown by Martin Luther King, Jack Welch and one group to another:
- It consists of episodic acts that have an impact on others where those showing leadership have no leadership role within the group to which leadership is shown.
- It is based solely on the power of informal influence, never formal authority.
- It challenges the status quo, shows a better way, and promotes change.
- It is successful, and it comes to an end, once the target group accepts the need to change direction.
- It has nothing to do with executing the change as it has no power to orchestrate action beyond selling the need to act.
- It therefore has nothing to do with making decisions for the impacted group or with managing the people who execute the proposed change. Such leadership sells (and resells as needed) the tickets for the journey; management drives the bus to the destination.
- Besides not being a role, it does not involve hierarchy or dominance. It is the advocacy of a better way. There is no group dominance as no one can monopolize ideas.
- The episodic character of inter-group leadership matches the fragmentation that creates the conditions for guerrilla warfare and it makes sense of how all employees can show some occasional leadership even if they have no inclination or competence to achieve even informal leader status within a group.
- It can be shown by groups as well as individuals. Conversely, the intra-group leader is always an individual, but this model cannot account for how a group or team can show leadership to other groups.
- Inter-group leadership is not paternalistic as it is not necessarily concerned with the wellbeing of members within the impacted group.
Breaking the Stranglehold of Role-Based Leadership
To fully understand the meaning of leadership we need to challenge our fixation with the role-based model. Comparing intra- and inter-group leadership can provide a foundation for a general theory that can better account for both types of leadership. We can’t generalize from the role-based model to episodic acts of leadership, but we could say that all leadership, whether of the intra- or inter-group variety has nothing to do with occupying a role, that it is always occasional action. Although inter-group leadership is interesting in its own right, defining leadership as occasional acts of influence has huge benefits for how we regard leadership within organizations.
Of particular interest to innovation-driven businesses, is bottom-up leadership where knowledge workers persuade their bosses to develop a new product. This is a form of leadership even if those showing it would not be regarded as informal leaders of their senior management groups. Although bottom-up leadership is an intra-group phenomenon, it shares with inter-group leadership the fact that it is episodic action rather than a role. All the more reason to develop an understanding of inter-group leadership – it gives us a model to explain bottom-up leadership.
Other Examples of Episodic Leadership
- Leadership that consists in episodic acts and is not role-based occurs within groups as well as across them. Consider leading by example. Countries can set an example for others, but individual employees can do so as well. For instance, a junior accountant might employ exceptionally scrupulous and transparent practices, without advocating them, thereby setting an example that leads colleagues to follow suit, even if this accountant is so socially unskilled as to never be considered either a formal or informal leader in a role-based sense.
- Lone software developers in widely separated locations make independent contributions to open-source software development. They show leadership to each other through their innovative moves without explicitly collaborating, let alone occupying a leadership role.
- In a meeting, where colleagues brainstorm to find a solution to a problem, each person might offer a good idea that has a momentary leadership impact on the discussion, causing it to move in a new direction. Yet, none of the group might have the interest or social skills to ascend to the role of the group’s leader, formal or informal.
- In each of these cases, leadership is an occasional, one-off act, not an ongoing role. It is quite incredible that our fixation with role-based leadership has caused us to totally overlook the anomalous character of leading by example. That is, we try to understand leadership by focusing on what it means to occupy a leadership role, completely ignoring leading by example in the process. But if all employees can lead their colleagues by simply working smarter, even those who lack the ability or motivation to take charge of a group, then we have a very everyday type of leadership within groups that cannot be explained by the usual model.
A General Theory of Leadership
Conventional role-based leadership as epitomized by the CEO is hard to describe in general, non-situational terms. This problem has been made much worse by our refusal to offer a significant role to management. Some popular books such as The Leadership Challenge, by James Kouzes and Barry Posner have no place for management at all. The reason is easy to see. Many of prominent gurus (Tom Peters, Warren Bennis, John Kotter, etc.) began writing in the late 1970’s or early 80’s when, thanks to the Japanese commercial success in the West, there was a great hue and cry to replace managers with leaders. Instead of upgrading management for a new age, we wanted a scapegoat to blame for business’s failure to compete. Management was blamed for being too bureaucratic and not fostering innovation. Since then, management has been portrayed as controlling, mechanistic, transactional and good for nothing except keeping ongoing operations ticking over. This disastrous move has caused leadership to become overloaded, bloated with too much organizational weight to carry.
Complexity normally calls for greater specialization, but our mental block against management has prevented us from giving it a full share of the executive load.
Complexity is also making it increasingly hard for role-based leaders to provide direction. What was once a defining feature of leadership has now become diluted. Kouzes and Posner struggle with this issue, telling us that leaders challenge the status quo but then watering this down by saying leaders don’t so much challenge the status quo as make it possible for others to do so. Similarly, Jim Collins has explicitly dispensed with the need for leaders to provide direction by making his level 5 leaders facilitators who get their best people together to draw ideas for new directions out of them. A general theory of leadership that gives management its proper place in organizations allows us to bring back challenging the status quo to provide new direction as the essence of leadership. We then simply have to say that managers encourage others to challenge the status quo (show leadership) and that, when so-called level 5 leaders operate as facilitators, they are wearing a managerial hat.
We have always thought of leadership as providing direction. What is new here is the suggestion that we assign everything to do with execution and managing people to the function of management.
Conventional role-based leadership has taken over much of what used to fall to management. But if we define leadership as doing nothing more than promoting new directions, we need an upgraded concept of management to carry the additional load. If we define management as the function of getting things done, everything is covered. Other leadership writers, notably John Kotter, made a valiant effort to develop functional definitions of leadership and management, but being a child of his time, he couldn’t resist importing style considerations into his scheme of things. Although he seems to avoid using the terms, leaders are transformational for Kotter and managers are transactional. However, a fully functional differentiation does not need to make any reference to style.
In some situations, leaders can win the day with quiet, evidence-based appeals while managers can be inspirational. The only difference is that one moves us to change direction while the other motivates us to work harder. Everything to do with motivating, developing, nurturing, empowering and guiding employees can be seen as a management function, nothing to do with leadership. Modern management is like investment. The goal of managers is to get work done by investing all resources at their disposal to get the best return. Managers need not be controlling. If wise managers see that their teams will work better on a self-managing basis, that is what they will foster.
We noted above that groups can show leadership, not just individuals. By defining leadership as a function, nothing is implied about whether it might be shown by groups or individuals. Similarly, management is also a function which can be carried out by self-managing teams. Management, like leadership, does not entail a single individual doing the leading or managing.
While there is both intra- and inter-group leadership, there is only intra-group management. There is no inter-group management because its very meaning is to work with people to integrate their several inputs into a joint output. Even if a particular manager is physically remote from the group, there is still the need for two-way communication and collaboration to produce a coordinated output.
CEOs wear two hats. By virtue of their role they are managers, but they can occasionally show leadership. The language of “being” versus “showing” is deliberate – it conveys the difference between role and occasional action. A great advantage of comparing inter- with intra-group leadership is that it helps us differentiate leadership from management much more clearly. When we focus only on role-based leadership, it is like trying to differentiate marketing from sales activity in small business owners. When entrepreneurs explain a new product to a prospective customer are they engaged in marketing or sales? We can’t tell, at least not without knowing their intentions. In large companies with separate directors of sales and marketing, we naturally categorize their behavior on the basis of their roles, so there is no problem separating them. With CEOs, the differentiation between management and leadership is made easier by using inter-group leadership as a model of all leadership where it is totally separate from management.
What it Takes to Show Leadership
The traits required to promote a new direction are different from those needed to be a rounded executive with managerial responsibilities. An executive must have skills for managing people and the emotional intelligence to pull them together and motivate them. The basis of leadership defined as promoting new directions is dissatisfaction with the status quo, the desire to find and promote a better way. It is ultimately based on youthful rebelliousness which hopefully is channeled into technological, organizational or social improvement rather than dysfunctionally into crime. Daniel Goleman once wrote that there is another word for emotional intelligence – it is maturity.
Ironically, organizational leaders are the somewhat obnoxious young people calling for change which “leadership development” programs actually downplay by encouraging these employees to become more mature. The truth is that such programs turn employees, who are already leaders, into managers but with the cost of discouraging their leadership instincts. The major personal characteristics required to show leadership are the drive to improve some part of the world and the courage to challenge the status quo. How leaders influence their prospective audiences is totally a situational matter. Some will succeed with inspirational speeches, others will win acceptance through hard-hitting, evidence-based arguments. Such leadership does not require people management skills. While management skills can be learned, leadership, defined as having the courage to challenge the status quo, can only be fostered, not developed.
Static versus Dynamic Leadership
Traditional intra-group leadership is relatively static. Think of the gang boss, head of the family firm or tribal leader, strong men or women who rule with an iron fist, often until they are dead. Pyramids are sometimes toppled but the model is relatively static. Today, we have a continuum with more or less static groups at one end of the spectrum and knowledge driven, innovative businesses that are little more than loose networks at the other extreme. Wherever single individuals can dominate a hierarchy in a conventional small group through physical force or the strength of personality, we have the triumph of form over substance. Because the knowledge driven world is a war of ideas, where content is king, we have the opposite: the triumph of substance over form. But no one has a monopoly on good ideas. This is why leadership, in this realm at least, must be reinvented as the successful promotion of a better idea, an isolated, one-off act, rather than an ongoing, static role. Being an occasional act, such leadership is dynamic and fluid, constantly shifting from one person to another.
The Real Meaning of Followership
It is a truism that being a leader means having followers. Intra-group leadership is conceptualized as an active two-way relationship between leaders and followers. Because of the confidence and intelligence of modern knowledge workers, we recognize that, as followers, they can often influence their leaders as much as the latter influence them. But there is no such two-way relationship between inter-group leaders and their followers, especially where leaders and followers never even meet each other. Moreover, between competing groups, market leaders go out of their way to discourage followers by disguising their intentions and issuing patents on new products. inter-group leadership is, therefore, a one way impact not a two-way or collaborative enterprise.
However, leadership does entail followers because it is a relational concept. So are eating and drinking. We can’t eat or drink without eating or drinking something. Impact is also a good example of a relational concept as it implies at least two objects, one to do the impacting and one to receive the impact. Even in the case of physical impact the recipient plays some role in the type of impression made by the impacting object. For example, compare dropping a heavy book on the floor with dropping it on your glasses. These impacted objects will receive their impact quite differently. The impact of dropping a heavy book on different objects differs depending on the constitution of the impacted objects, but the impact is still one-way. So, leadership is always in the eye of the beholder but, with inter-group leadership, the relationship is a one-way impact.
Crucially, however, there is a more fundamental reason why there is no two-way relationship between leaders and followers. It is simply that when a so-called follower influences a “leader,” this is itself an act of leadership. The conventional, role-based model of leadership is static: one person occupies a leadership role on an ongoing basis over a group of followers in subordinate roles. But when leadership is conceived as a dynamic flux of multi-directional leadership acts, there are no leadership or followership roles, just different leadership acts occurring top-down, sideways and bottom-up. In a meeting, all participants could, in turn, engage in acts of leading and following. Both are occasional acts, never roles. This point makes it crystal clear that leadership is always a one-way impact on followers, not a two-way process.
Practical Implications of Leadership Reinvented
Leadership defined as the successful promotion of new directions has several advantages and practical benefits:
- A clearer understanding of when executives are leading and managing.
- It shows how all employees can show some leadership, even those with no ability or inclination to be role-based leaders.
- Wider ownership for organizational leadership; less of a top-down monopoly of leadership, hence taking empowerment a stage further.
- Greater opportunity to fully engage and retain talent by showing them how they can be leaders without having to be promoted into roles.
- A clearer understanding of so-called dispersed leadership – it is not the conventional informal leadership which involves gaining the status of leader in a group and directing the group’s work. Rather, it is simply the willingness to promote a better idea or to set an example.
- A better understanding of how to foster leadership and develop executives, hence a better investment of the executive development budget.
In conclusion, inter-group leadership is interesting in its own right, but the main purpose of discussing it here has been to show that a general theory of leadership will not be all-encompassing if it models itself on intra-group leadership. The episodic nature of inter-group leadership has the potential to give us new insights into how to characterize intra-group leadership, indeed all leadership.