Leadership Beyond Leaders

I recently had lunch with someone who worked with a global network of young leaders and also a group of elder statesmen and women. With such an intergenerational exposure to leaders and leadership I had to ask what she thought leadership is. After some discussion I was surprised at how many people working in fields that convene or praise “leaders” don’t think through what leadership means, let alone responsible leadership. Instead, more obvious and visceral things seem to identify leaders: fame, role, impact, novelty and personal connections being key. Maybe I seemed a bit disappointed, so my lunch companion asked me what I thought a leader is. Id read books about leadership but none of the theories were fresh in my mind, so with the benefit of a poor memory, I made something up that describes the characteristics of people I admire and thus the qualities I seek to express myself (in my better moments). After lunch I decided to type up the ideas here…

There is a whole bunch of other things that are important and help comprise a great character (born leaders?), or a skilled professional (trained leaders?), but here are the 5 key attributes I identified. Leadership involves:

* Inspiring people to believe in their greater selves,
* Showing them a pathway for enacting that,
* Encouraging them to participate in a community in the process,
* Practically helping them along the way, and then,
* Reminding them of their commitment.

Leadership is expressed, not held. With these attributes in mind, no one is a leader per se, but anyone can exhibit leadership. That is because leadership exists in relation to others and contexts.

I’ll expand a bit… Inspiring people to believe in their greater selves is key because its the most incredible thing you can do for someone, to unleash their hopes and dreams and sense of dignity and ability. Usually the result of encouraging someone to think of their greater or higher self is for them to connect to a purpose beyond their immediate worries or insecurities, and be an agent for something useful in the world. It is deep and lasting impact, and important at an existential level.

Showing them a pathway for enacting that is important, as unless people can relate their aspirations to their immediate predicament, this can lead to frustration and disillusionment. By providing a practical example of how to take a first step, this makes an abstract idea seem tangible.

Encouraging them to participate in a community is important, as it is through engaging others that we can achieve results, learning what we bring, and how we are valued, when acting from our higher aims and sense of purpose.

Practically helping them along the way is important, as true leadership needs to involve some substantive contribution rather than simply exhortation and advice. Introducing people to people, providing them with new responsibilities or opportunities for experiences and training, and defending them when they stumble while advising them on what to do as a result, are all important if the initial inspiration is to stabilise into a new way of being.

Reminding them of their commitment is key. I almost said “holding people accountable” but that sounds too much like a positional role. Instead, what’s important is that if someone is impacted positively by your actions and advice, and you see them act differently as a result, then you have a bond. They will remember. In my own experience I have often belittled the impact I’ve had on others, not wanting to take things too seriously or create an impression of hierarchy. This means I’ve not accepted this aspect of leadership and perhaps this means that Ive missed the opportunity to play that useful role for people… to help them reflect on whether they are living their commitments or not today. Perhaps it takes a maturity that I’ve not had, to take on all this final aspect of leadership, which assumes an “elder” role… To do it in a way that is also humble, and still playful, could be my personal holy grail.

After lunch I looked back at some of the literature on leadership and it appears much discussion on leadership does not emphasise these attributes. Could it be our somewhat individualist, egotistical and patriarchal culture means we focus on powerful or charismatic individuals? Or that our organisation-centric and hierarchical forms of work mean we focus on those people who best get people to serve organisations, rather than their own higher callings?

Perhaps. And these limitations also then play out in discussions of what “responsible” leadership might be. Many speak of responsible leadership in terms of an individual being a fearless do-gooder confident in their own moral frameworks or, more introspectively, seeking fulfilment beyond accomplishment or, more simply, looking after their immediate subordinates.

I’ll venture that ‘responsible leadership’ is the expression of the five relational qualities I identified above in ways where the intention and effect is to help people who will be influenced as a result. i.e. if leadership concerns ones immediate relations with others, responsible leadership concerns one’s wider relations with communities influenced by those being “led”.

Sometimes a focus on responsible leadership can distract us from systemic issues. As if individual leaders acting in the public interest could change the world despite ingrained racism and sexism, structured inequality, corporate-owned mass media, consumerism, compound interest and financial speculation (to list some of my pet peeves). So its important when thinking about responsible leadership to think in movements and systems. Therefore our key interest, research, education, advice and advocacy should be about how we can cultivate such leadership in everyone, and what aspects of our culture, politics, economics and organisations undermine these qualities of leadership that anyone could naturally express!

In outlining these attributes of leadership I’ve probably been inadvertently rehearsing a leadership theory found in a 1950s management text or 4th century BC spiritual text. If so, please advise, as I could then cite the ideas of a known “leader” who defined leadership this way. As Im involved in the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative (GRLI.org) I could then also feed this stuff into their work in a way that could be valued academically (as you dont get points for a bad memory freeing up mental space for a new schema!).

Or if these are new ideas and we need a new management fad name for them, tweet me a suggestion (@jembendell http://twitter.com/jembendell). Perhaps Relational Leadership? Connective Leadership?

Jem Bendell

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