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What is Organizational Leadership?

If 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 it wrong all these years about how organizations are best led; it’s even entertaining to see the self-involved and self-congratulatory individual leader hauled over the coals for a change. But when we refocus on the issue after absorbing these ideas, there they remain: organizations. And the question remains, as well: how are they to be led?

To begin with, the concept of organizational leadership, as described here, is not entirely new. For almost a century, various observers have glimpsed the self-organizing characteristics of groups, and their natural tendency, more or less of their own accord, to design and direct their own affairs. More than that, there have also been suggestions in the literature that leadership and authority are to be viewed as distinctly separate phenomena.

A self-organizing – better, a self-leading – group may sound terrific. But if you’re an owner, you’re likely to have some valid reservations about surrendering the fate of your investment and goals to that process. You will want, directly or through the medium of professional executive management, to direct and control the operation of that process. This is accomplished through placing a distinct and separate authority at the top of the organization, in order to manage the otherwise self-directing leadership that exists naturally within it.

That authority at the top is not leadership as commonly understood. Rather, it is command. It gives legitimate expression to the superior role of management over the inferior function of leadership.

On the other hand, organizational leadership, as described in Managing Leadership, is

inherent in the very nature of the organization. It arises from the peculiar relationships that form among people joined together in a collaborative effort. As such, it takes on an identity of its own, existing in these relationships, rather than merely in the individuals who enter into them. Thus, it both influences, and is influenced by, those individuals. It communicates their organizational impressions and needs throughout the organization.”

In an intelligently managed organization, that leadership isn’t a randomly operating process; it’s “a propulsive force given motion by purpose, and by a joint effort to accomplish it.” That is its natural tendency, its bias. But it is management’s role to ensure that this organizational leadership has a substantive and meaningful core around which to form itself and to give it traction for advancing the organization toward its stated ends.

Using these as a basis, organizational leadership can provide the functions of leadership to an organizationally beneficial degree that cannot be matched by individual charismatic leaders alone. It is also far more reliably focused on the organization’s ability to accomplish its own purposes and ensure its own sustainability (rather than resulting in the perversion of those to the interests of senior executive “leaders”).

In the next article, we’ll return to a brief discussion of how managers can do that. From the basis of these initial postings, we’ll then move on to examples – both from the book and from current events, and suggested both by me and by all of you – that help illustrate the concepts discussed in Managing Leadership.

I look forward to your joining us!

Jim Stroup

Note for visitors: Over the years this page has become the number 1 return on Google for the search term “organizational leadership” and a top return for many other search engines. The continuing interest and traffic to this page suggests that many of you are looking for more information about this topic, which is so central to management and business. So, before you go, please visit the organizational leadership category of this site to learn about the subject from a number of additional perspectives. While you’re at it, why not look around the other categories as well? And thanks for your visit.

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One Comment

  1. Caimin Keogh wrote:

    I am considering doing a study on the lack of organisational leadership within International Organisations (UN, EU etc) that claim to have a ‘comprehensive approach’ to humanitarian crisis and conflict management. I love the opening themes you have highlighted. Any recommendations on how I should approach my subject matter or where I should commence my literature study?

    Monday, August 1, 2011 at 10:38 am | Permalink

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