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What is Individual Leadership?

Admittedly, it is difficult to avoid thinking of leadership as, inevitably, an individual characteristic. After all, we have developed the habit of viewing it this way over the millennia of recorded history.

Up through the last century, thinkers and writers on the topic of leadership almost exclusively focused on individual political and military leaders. This pattern of thought was, in fact, largely appropriate, due to the structure and nature of social institutions up to that time. The earliest leaders were the princes at the head of growing and adventurous political groupings, all aspiring to kingdoms and empire.

These entities and their constituent peoples were viewed, right up into modern times, as little more than the property – even extensions of the personality – of the ruler. As a result, the concept of leadership became associated with the political leadership of the individual at the top. That is the only person who mattered – in some ways, it is the only person who even existed to the fullest, legal extent.

The leader’s principal activities were oriented toward expanding his (and, sometimes, her) power, wealth, domain, reputation, and political freedom of maneuver. This was almost exclusively done through military adventure. As a result, the early studies of leadership, from Sun Tzu through von Clausewitz, were mostly of warrior kings or their generals. This led to the association of individual leadership with military leadership. Again, it was focused on the military leadership of the person at the top.

The centuries-old habit of viewing leadership as the set of characteristics possessed by the single individual at the top of an organization is hard to shake. The passage of time has lent it an authority that seems indisputable. As a result, it is difficult to answer the intuitively logical argument that there can only be one leader, located at the pinnacle of an effective organization, be it political, military, or otherwise.

But there is an answer: Leadership is being confused with command. The military phrase, “unity of command,” refers to the need to maintain a clear line of authority and accountability in order to preserve uniform, efficient action throughout an organization, however complex it may be. This, however, does not necessarily refer to leadership as defined in the book, Managing Leadership.

Certainly, individuals, and more obviously, those at the top, can and do exhibit leadership. But that fact does not address, much less contest, the concept of organizational leadership within modern (and all) organizations as presented in Managing Leadership.

Many changes have taken place, and are still in motion, regarding how organizations are formed and operated. Improvements in the understanding of how people within them behave and interact, most of which are barely 100 years old, are driving many of these changes.

In the next article, we’ll briefly discuss the effects of those changes on the concept of leadership in organizations. We will examine how these changes are not about what organizational leadership really is or ever has been, but about how we are to correctly understand it and use that understanding to the advantage of all.

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  1. Hi Jim – I’m taking you up on your invitation to explore your site. I get that there is difference between leadership as an act of control and leadership as it take s place in the context of the various events of the organization on the many levels that cultural demands open up by the situation. So in this sense even at where the multiplicity leadership events are permitted – they are all framed within the larger authority of the cultural boundaries granted within the leaders “voice”.

    My hope is that as I proceed from this “must read” post to the next that I engine of our logic will present itself.

    Friday, October 10, 2008 at 3:37 pm | Permalink
  2. Jim Stroup wrote:

    Thanks for your thoughtful review of this material – I do hope it makes sense to you as you progress through it, and I look forward to your views.

    Friday, October 10, 2008 at 10:06 pm | Permalink
  3. Levy wrote:

    Thanks and I wish you well.

    Thursday, November 20, 2008 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

10 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] I won’t enter here into the argument about the chimera of personal, individual leadership in modern organizations – I will in coming weeks, but for the present you might view the “must read posts” at the upper right of the page (linked here, here, and here for those of you reading this from your subscription feed). […]

  2. […] That, ladies and gentleman, is one of the key differences between an organizationally effective manager of leadership, and an organizationally destructive individual leader. […]

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    […] posts listed at the top of the sidebar (for those of you viewing this in a reader, you can start here). (Please note also, that the way this view plays out in practice is influenced by the presence and […]

  4. […] see the “Must Read Posts” at the upper right (or here, here, and here, if you are viewing this in a reader or email), for more on […]

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    […] listed at the top of the sidebar (or, for those of you viewing this in an RSS reader or email, see here, here, and […]

  6. […] you ever read a book on individual leadership that takes this attitude? One that – rather than inviting you into the author’s thinking […]

  7. […] the center of the organizational universe reside in individual leadership, or are we planets interacting with each other according to our relative influence over our […]

  8. Great Leader Theory | Managing Leadership on Friday, September 5, 2008 at 12:10 pm

    […] But, amazingly, for all this rabid buy-in and furious activity, we still can’t find anyone who can provide (from their general perspective) a satisfactory definition for us of what leadership – or a leader – is. In view of this stunningly enduring and fundamental failure, how long will we continue to kid ourselves about the chimera of singular individual leadership? […]

  9. […] to review the three “must read posts” listed in the sidebar of the main site (beginning here, for those of you viewing this in an email or RSS […]

  10. […] leadership in organizations really isn’t an individual characteristic, then what is it, and what does it do? It’s all well and good to argue that we’ve had […]

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