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The Leader as Activist

How does an activist become a leader? Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mandela were activists who we now recognize as leaders. If challenging the status quo is an essential part of how leadership works, then all leaders are activists.

Indeed, it may be that the terms leader and manager should be replaced by activist and facilitator. Activists promote change with neither the authority nor sufficient wisdom to decide matters for a crowd. Facilitators coordinate the efforts of people to help them achieve goals without actually controlling them.

How The World Has Changed

Leaders and managers lived in a world of stable structures with clear boundaries and fixed roles arranged in a neat pecking order. Organizations driven by constant innovation are more loosely structured. They are fragmenting just as surely as physical objects that try to move too fast.

As a result, our efforts to understand leadership must shift from the statics of structure to the dynamics of rapid change. As in the physical world, leadership is no longer a role in a stable structure but a brief impact that induces an organization to think differently, even if only momentarily.

The main destabilizing force in business today is the shifting balance of power. A hierarchy is a power structure. Those at the top got there by claiming to know best where to take the organization and how to get there.

But the rise of Richard Florida's creative class levels the playing field. There may still be a hierarchy of positional authority but no longer one of knowledge or insight. Authority of position minus authority of knowledge equals zero authority in a knowledge driven world. As knowledge workers come to know more than their bosses, direction flows bottom-up.

If leadership provides direction, it must come from a crowd where wisdom resides instead of flowing top-down as of old. Crowd-sourced leadership is a discrete act not an ongoing, stable role. As a type of action, such leadership can be shown by groups, not just individuals. It also originates from the front-lines or outside the organization altogether.

The new reality is summarized in the following table:



Stable roles
Static structures
Solid organizational boundaries
Top-down leadership
Top person has the answers
Efficient execution for success
Style counts - charisma
Authority vested in position 
Formal authority calls the shots 
Left brained sequential thinking 
Permanent employees
Discrete, brief acts
Dynamic, rapid evolution
Permeable to outside influence
Multi-directional and outsider leadership
Wisdom of crowds
Rapid innovation and change to prosper
Content is king, ideas and evidence rule
The power of knowledge 
Fleeting influence based on better ideas 
Right brained creative acts, not roles 
Occasional or outsourced contributors

These changes are not hitting all organizations equally. Some may remain stable structures, such as some public sector organizations, but rapidly changing, loose networks, require a more dynamic model of how business works.

Leaders as Activists

In Leading the Revolution, Gary Hamel called on all employees to become activists by advocating new products to top management, such as did the Sony employee who convinced his bosses to develop PlayStation. Hamel unfortunately did not develop the connection between leading and being an activist other than to hint at it in the title of his book.

Martin  Luther King Jr, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were activists. So are green campaigners. When activists resort to violence, we rightly label them terrorists. But when they use constructive approaches to influence us, we classify them as leaders.

Activists, by definition, must campaign for their causes because they have no authority to make decisions for the group they seek to influence. If they succeed in having a leadership impact, it might be a once-in-a-lifetime act. Activists might have no interest or qualifications to be an leader in the positional sense.

If leadership is not a role within a group, then it needn't be limited to individuals. Thus activist groups like Green Peace can have a leadership impact on other groups. It is often younger, creative, rebellious types trying to make their mark who lead as activists.

New Roles for CEOs

Thanks to complexity, positional leadership should be separated into specialist sub-roles:

  1. Doing things - negotiating with suppliers, customers and strategic partners, reporting to the Board, representing the company to shareholders and government representatives, etc.
  2. Making strategic and operational decisions.
  3. Facilitating - coordinating, operating as a catalyst, coach and developer of people.
  4. Advocating new directions as activists.

1. Executives as doers

Many of the things CEOs do such as negotiating mergers, relating to customers or strategic partners and reporting to the Board are not really leadership.

2. Decision making

Strategic and operational decisions must be managerial if leadership is an influence process, not a role. If leadership can be shown by outsiders such as competitors then it can't involve making decisions for those who are led. This must be what managers do.

3. Facilitating, enabling and coaching

Executives help others achieve goals as facilitators, enablers, coaches or catalysts. This is managing where management is upgraded as a supportive function. Or, we could drop the term manager and just refer to the component activities of coaching, developing, nurturing, coordinating, etc.

4. Advocating new directions

Advocating a better way is not a decision making activity but an influence process aimed at promoting a change of direction. Whenever a new direction is advocated or shown by example and accepted, leadership is shown, whether by the CEO, a front-line employee, an external partner or a competitor.

Viewing the leader as an activist, and wise groups as the best decision makers, is an essential shift in perspective in a world dominated by creative class types who need to have input in order to feel fully engaged.

Why Bother?

Separating CEO activity into four sub-roles makes two points (1) CEOs are not leaders simply by virtue of being CEOs and (2) both leadership and management need to be seen as activities that anyone can undertake, that we must stop seeing them as roles or the exclusive domain of those in charge of people.

Businesses competing through rapid innovation need all employees to share the load of leading and managing. They need employees to be activists as Gary Hamel rightly argues. In a more dynamic context, leadership is a series of discrete actions not ongoing roles.

A shorter version of this article was published in Management Issues, November 10, 2010. 

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