Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Leading or Punning

Just back from Academy of Management annual conference where I attended many sessions on "leadership” topics, Ive concluded that leadership scholars (and many others) are engaged in a massive punning game. That is, the words leader and leadership are uttered ubiquitously and have multiple meanings, often ironic, yet very few people take time to consider the implications of the punning.
Most speakers at conference sessions did not directly divulge their own definitions of leader and leadership. Instead, those being punned at, had to sort out meanings for themselves.
Not surprisingly at a conference dominated by participants from business schools around the world, the most common meaning of leader was CEO, or possibly member of a firm’s senior management team. Some scholars extend this view to include the nonprofit and political realm – that is, leaders are not just CEOs but also executive directors and Presidents, or other people with visible and powerful positions.
These scholars – from what might be called the "top dog school tend to define leadership in one of two ways. It may be the sum of the people in top positions in a firm, nonprofit, or government agency – as in, "The leadership has issued a policy about employee benefits”. Alternatively, leadership may be more process or action-oriented – that is, leadership is about what these top people do. They set direction, make strategies, promulgate visions, drive change, and the like.
Another group of organizational scholars has a somewhat more expansive view: middle managers are also considered leaders of their units or divisions. In behavioral terms, they do some of the same things the top dogs do, but they answer to their "bosses,” while leading "subordinates.
Another group of scholars, onetime renegades at an event like this conference, say, wait a minute, what if we consider the possibility that everyone in an organization may be the instigator of change? What if we see relationship building and teamwork as key aspects of leadership? Wouldn’t people who do this anywhere in the organization be exercising leadership, and if so, might we call them leaders?
What if we see organizations as systems and recognize that system dynamics may have more impact on outcomes of a top team’s new policy than anything the team actually does? Wouldn’t anyone in the organization have a chance to influence those dynamics in ways that prompted needed change? Everyone has heard the story of the low-level employee who came up with an idea that saved the organization millions or led the way to a valuable new product or service. Was this employee a leader?
Maybe the organization or the system itself functions as a leader…
So what does this mean for evaluating leaders, for helping people become leaders? All meanings are flying around and have force, but the first two are incredibly limiting and disempowering – spend too much time trying to identify the essence of what successful CEOs and bosses do, heap praise on those who turn their companies or their countries around, and how with outrage when they disappoint us and start talking about the "leader with irony. Prep for leading where you are. But recognizing that positions in organizations and networks often add formal authority and power over resources that people outside those positions dont have. Agree with argument that we need more rather than fewer leaders these days.
Maybe a helpful way of thinking is big l versus little l leadership. Helping people to lead within their sphere of influence, but also recognize that they will often be followers. Ability to move in and out of follower roles, but see themselves as always active in the leadership work.
Maybe we’d be less prone then to utter the word leader with ironic quote marks. 
Posted September 10, 2008Se

No comments:

Post a Comment