Before returning to the main topics in our current discussion of the problems with the prescriptions of the modern leadership movement (MLM), we’re going to take a brief look at two more types of what are generally regarded as genuine examples of “leadership” in organizations.
Today, we will explain why one of these examples actually is not leadership at all as it is understood by the MLM, and why it is more accurately seen as a symptom of an unwell organization. This is the sort of leadership we see in the person who steps up and “takes charge.”
Ordinarily, we don’t refer to someone as taking charge unless that person is filling a vacuum that has been exhausting the organization’s resources and energy. After all, if the organization’s positions of authority were properly distributed throughout, and their occupants routinely discharged their duties effectively, it wouldn’t occur to anyone to comment on the matter.
Moreover, if some of those position holders turned out to be inadequate to their tasks while others were doing fine, it still wouldn’t occur to any one working under the management of either of these groups to say that the latter one’s members were “taking charge.”
It is generally only when someone steps in to resolve a situation normally beyond his or her formal range of authority to save the day, to fill a void that is paralyzing the organization or one of its departments, do we say that someone has appeared on the scene to “take charge” of the situation. This doesn’t happen when you are effectively managing your assigned duties. It happens when you step in to the chaos created by the mismanagement of someone else’s responsibilities to establish order there.
This commonly occurs when a co-worker or operational manager observes the problem, and in order to resolve it, assumes an authority not normally his or hers. “What do you say we fix this?” he or she says, or “I think I see a way out of this.” Instantly, heretofore enervated fellow employees become energized and focused. “Lead,” they say, “we’ll follow.” Somebody do something. Anyone. Anything. Let’s just start getting this thing underway again and see if we can see the way forward better as we get going.
This is a valid form of leadership, but it should be noted that it is not organizationally designed. It doesn’t arise from the intent or planning of the senior leadership. Rather, it surfaces on its own as a result of the sclerotic incompetence descending from there into the organization. That’s a key feature of this: it occurs where it is needed due to organizational ineptitude; not where it is intended by organizational design. It is situation-dependent, not personality-derived.
Even the “followership” is more or less genuine in instances like these. But it is no more institutionally valid than the unconventional risk-taking form of individual leadership which generates it. Indeed, it is often just as risky for the followers to follow as it is for the “leader(s)” to take charge where those formally responsible have proven incapable (a fact painfully highlighted by the appearance of unofficial and unauthorized “take charge” leaders attracting equally unofficial and unauthorized “followership” at various points around the facility).
What’s more, such intermittent eruptions of leadership/followership are more expressions of relief than the sort of relationship with an individual leader that is described and promoted by the MLM. They are organizational reflections of the developing situation, rather than inevitable responses to particular persons due to their possession of specified leadership traits.
When the problem situation resolves, ordinarily the leadership/followership phenomena fades away with it. That is, it is an organizational response to a situation, not to a person.
In fact, it is not really individual leadership at all – it is a manifestation of what I refer to in these pages as organizational leadership. In the case postulated here, it arises from managerial incompetence, and is often suppressed and even punished by that management once the latter regains its bearings and, wholly mis-appreciating the import of what has happened, reasserts control.
This suggests, of course, the importance of managers who acknowledge and manage the leadership naturally existent in their organizations, rather than attempting vainly and dangerously to arrogate it all to themselves. That is to say that the best managers don’t assume they are themselves the sole font of the organization’s leadership – they “take charge” of it, though, by managing the organizational leadership inherently there so it can produce “take charge” leaders where and when they are needed – not to resolve crises or incompetence, but to head them off with authorized innovations, and to seize opportunities to grow and improve.
Which brings us to our next topic: we’ll look at why the type of preeminent individual leadership most enthusiastically promoted by the MLM as what ought to be designed into an organizations is usually – in truth, perhaps inevitably – actually so destructive of them. We will also look at why it so commonly takes a terribly long time to realize that, as we willfully persist in misattributing its baleful effects.
Today’s Tips: Speaking of managerial incompetence, if worse comes to worst, you may want to check out these fascinating products of the power and insight of market forces to help you mitigate them: CareerExcuse.com and Alibi Services. I haven’t used these, by the way; they were discovered in the course of reading an illuminating book called Liespotting, by Pamela Meyer.
And speaking of the wonders wrought by the marketplace of needs and ideas, please see this terrific Economist piece on an adaptation of vacuum tube delivery systems you all have seen in hospitals and similar institutions – this one is for delivering your online purchases . . . all the way to your home.
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