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Why Leadership Isn't a Role

A lot of people feel that leadership isn't a role but what does it mean exactly to reject this idea? Is there any sense to the claim that leadership is in fact a role?

We elect leaders and appoint them to executive positions. This suggests that leadership, in some sense, is a role. But, if it is, then there can't be any leadership outside of roles. Even informal leaders occupy roles.

However, we can't defeat role-based leadership by pointing out that there are lots of roles that don't involve leadership, i.e. husband, wife, night watchman. That's like saying that snow can't be white just because there are lots of white things that aren't snow.

When we say that snow is white, we mean that being white is a necessary condition for a substance to be classified as snow. It isn't snow if it isn't white. But, being white isn't a sufficient condition for being snow, because there are other necessary conditions, like being cold and a having a certain crystalline structure.

Similarly, those who view leadership as a role might argue that occupying a role is a necessary condition to be a leader, while acknowledging that this isn't sufficient. In other words, you can't be a leader without being in a leadership role, but you need other traits as well.

Now, it's easy to see why some necessary conditions are indeed necessary. Oxygen is a necessary condition for fire because we know that one can't be lit in a vacuum.

But why is occupying a role a necessary condition for leadership? There are formal and informal leaders but, the story goes, both occupy roles in groups that give them the authority to make certain decisions on behalf of their groups.

Leadership Outside of Roles

What would pointing to examples of leadership outside of roles imply for role-based leadership? That would be like showing that a fire can be lit without oxygen.

Consider green leadership. When someone promotes green practices in one country that are adopted in another country, that person has shown leadership at a distance without being in a role relative to followers. When front-line innovators succeed in convincing management to adopt a new product, this is bottom-up leadership that is also not role-based.

Leadership that occurs outside of roles is a one-off act, not a role. Selling is a good analogy. You can sell something once on e-bay without being in a formal or informal sales role. Selling is an act, one that can be shown by people in sales roles and by people who are not.

Thus to say that leadership is not a role, in a radical sense, is to say that leadership can be shown outside of roles. We are not simply saying that occupying a role is only a necessary condition and not sufficient, we are saying that it isn't even necessary at all.

Counter Arguments

A skeptic could dismiss this argument by saying: "So what, the fact that there are instances of leadership outside of roles is irrelevant. That doesn't stop us from focusing all our attention on role-based leadership."

This sounds like a legitimate line to take. After all, if you were in the business of hiring or training sales people, you wouldn't care about the fact that people can sell things without being sales people. You would rightly want to focus on people who occupy formal sales roles.

Further, this objection might run, there's a hole in the selling-leading analogy. Selling is an act, regardless of whether it is done by a sales person or not but there is a deeper sense in which leadership is a role.

In a very primitive sense, being a leader means occupying the top slot in a hierarchy, much as it does in all higher animal species. In a primitive tribe, the leader doesn't have to act at all to be the group's leader. Simply being powerful enough to attain and hold the position is enough. Such leaders might be admired and loved but they could also be feared and hated, but they would still be classed as leaders.

This is where things get messy. In the modern world, we don't want to acknowledge that people can be leaders simply by virtue of being powerful enough to rise to the top of our group hierarchy. We want to say that they must also be certain kinds of people who behave in certain ways.

Perhaps we want to say that having the power to rise to the top is a necessary condition for becoming a leader but, again, not sufficient. Such power might amount to physical strength in most of the animal kingdom and in primitive human tribes but, in the modern world, we want our leaders to have a different kind of power: charisma.

If aspiring leaders aren't very charismatic, they must have some other character trait that is highly admirable, such as sterling integrity, wisdom or a compelling vision.

In any case, being a positional leader means something very different from leading outside of such roles. That is, selling is the same act regardless of whether it is performed by a sales person or not, but leading, so the story goes, is different. It isn't the same act inside and outside the leadership role.

Leadership that occurs outside of leadership roles, such as that shown by green leaders or bottom-up by front-line innovators is a form of influence. It moves people to change how they think or act.

However, it is possible to be a leader in a role-based sense without influencing people to change how they think or behave. It is possible to be a leader simply by keeping the peace, resolving conflict, maintaining group stability and being nice to group members.

You might argue that groups are not that static in today's world. Business groups operate in a dynamic context; they must be going somewhere to prosper. In such groups, leaders must have a vision, they must promote a clear direction and help the group achieve the destination.

This is certainly true of groups in business, but our fundamental concept of leadership is still subconsciously based on the more static image that we have imported from our primitive origins. Among the things we want from our positional leaders are reassurance, safety and stability. We want someone to soothe our anxieties.

The bottom line here is that we could refute the claim that oxygen is a necessary condition for fire by finding counterexamples, but that won't work for leadership. The fact that acts of leadership are possible outside of the leadership role isn't sufficient to rid us of our commitment to role-based leadership.

Management vs Leadership

To rid ourselves of role-based leadership, we need a multi-pronged strategy. First, we need to make a compelling case that leadership is always an act, one that influences people to change how they think or act. Second, we need to upgrade management to take over the role-based responsibilities we currently assign to leaders. Third, we need to convince people to break their habit of looking up to role-based leaders.

The third strategy is the hardest one to achieve. The only way to do this is to argue that, in a knowledge driven world, we need to stop depending on the lone heroic individual to look after us. Because the world is now so complex and fast changing, we need to look to ourselves and even outside the organization for one-off acts of leadership. This is leadership radically dispersed.

We need to see that role-based leadership is a primitive throwback that is out of date in the modern world where the crowd is wiser than any one individual. In addition, we disempower ourselves by looking to one person for direction. In short, the role-based concept of leadership is deeply entrenched but increasingly dysfunctional in a complex, knowledge driven world.

In conclusion, to say that leadership is not a role means that we can replace it with a combination of leadership-as-influence and management upgraded along with a willingness to cut our dependency on larger-than-life individuals. But belief in the latter is not rationally founded.

It's like religious belief: either you will never shed this belief or you can find it relatively easy; the ultimate rationale either way comes down to subjective needs, beliefs and attitudes. Those who want to convert to a new way of thinking rightly deserve a credible alternative based on leadership-as-influence and management upgraded.

See alsoLeadership and Management as Functions and No Leaders, No Managers.

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