Some Thoughts on "Managing People"
Are You "Stuck" or Just Resting?

We Have a Leadership Problem

"Leadership" has been on my mind lately, maybe because of the many conversations I have with people about the "lack of leadership" in their organizations.  It also came up in the comments on my recent post on "Managing" People.  Everywhere I go, people are talking about "leadership." 

But I'm rapidly coming to the conclusion that the last thing we need right now is more leaders or even better leaders. The entire frame is fundamentally flawed. 

The Problem with "Leadership"

When we talk about "leaders," implicit in the notion is that there are going to be "followers." There is a power dynamic in the idea of leadership that is often unexamined and that makes it virtually impossible for us to address the complex issues that lie before us. 

Leadership has an heroic quality to it. It implies that a leader can save us from whatever situation we find ourselves in. It puts the onus on the leader to find answers, divine the way and to move us along that path. The leader determines the course of action and we decide if and how we will follow. 

In our mythology of the leader, they are lone gunslingers (or maybe a team of a few), riding in on their white horses to save the day. They are the saviors, the heroes, the dragon-slayers. They are exalted and somehow different from ordinary mortals, imbued with special powers and skills that the rest of us can only wish we had. 

Some leaders are better than others at inviting participation in their leadership. Certainly this is better than a dictatorship. But still, at the heart of any notion of leadership is a fundamental power imbalance where the leader wields power that followers do not. 

This is its fundamental flaw. "Leadership" mark some as "special" while others are not. 

Even when we pay lipservice to the idea that we are all leaders, we secretly know this is crap. The very word "lead" means that someone is in charge and others are following.  We may not want to admit this is true, but it is. 

Why Do We Love Leaders?

We love having leaders (even when we chafe against them) because it relieves us of any responsibility or accountability for where we are or where we want to go. I can sit back and blame what's happening on "a lack of leadership." I can operate from my stance as a helpless victim of the leaders who will not lead or who lead poorly.  We see this at work all the time--the people who want "leaders," but then who blame the leaders they find for not being sufficiently heroic in saving them. 

And for those of us who aspire to be leaders, there is that secret wish that we will be the hero. We love leadership because if we become leaders, then it casts us in that mystical glow that comes with our status as leaders. We see ourselves as participatory leaders--and maybe we are--but still, as leaders, we are "the ones in charge." 

Lately it seems to me that we are workshipping at the altar of leadership  because we are desparate for new solutions and ideas. If we can only build leaders, then we can all be saved. We are like children, looking for our parents to swoop in and save the day. Leaders are the heroes and we are looking for them to rescue us. Or we are looking to BE the heroes and do the rescuing. 

But this is a damaging, disempowering way of operating in the world. All this worship of leaders and leadership merely perpetuates a dynamic of savior/victim. It makes it harder for those who feel that they are not leaders to contribute their strengths, ideas and gifts to the collective good. And it causes us to expend energy on all the power struggles that go with this idea--who's the leader, who isn't, how does the leader preserve his/her special status as hero, how do the rest of us respond to that? 

From Leader to Citizen 

I think we need to retire the words "leader" and "leadership" and begin to talk differently about how we are working. "Leaders" are about hierarchy and if we are working in a dense collection of networks now, we cannot look to "leaders" to solve our problems. 

We need to find a different way of talking about what needs to be done, that engages all people in the work. I like the word "citizen," which to me implies that we have rights AND responsibilities in the communities where we operate--including responsibilities to participate in contributing to the collective good. 

What would happen if we stopped talking about ourselves as "leaders" and developing our "leadership' and we started talking about ourselves as "citizens" and what it means to be good citizens in our world?  How could that change the ways we interact and the solutions we find? 


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