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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