Leadership theorists of times gone by have determined leadership to be something of an individualistic notion.
One of the earlier nineteenth century theories was called the ‘Great Man Theory’. This was focused on the idea that followers and society were influenced significantly by one person, a kind of hero-like ideal.
Some of the earliest works were by Thomas Carlyle when he popularised the theory in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History. However, this ‘hero leader’ idea is not something I consider as relevant to society as it perhaps once was.
From there, many other leadership theories emerged such as the transformational and transactional dichotomy in Burn’s Leadership.
The issue with these nineteenth and twentieth century theories are their somewhat antiquated value in a single person. We have evolved as a society to recognise the importance of group or joint decision making. This process allows for stronger discourse, and more effective leadership decision making.
“The imagination is the goal of history. I see culture as an effort to literally realize our collective dreams.” ― Terence McKenna
In society, and in organisations, it tends to be leadership teams which carry out the operations once held by a single leader. Whilst delegation is often a difficult task, rules and constitutions are making this more prevalent in government and business.
“You must unite your constituents around a common cause and connect with them as human beings.” ― James Kouzes and Barry Posner
Most theory takes limited interest in the follower, but it is also true that without followers a leader is just a person. The role of a leader is to obtain organisational goals and perhaps personal goals. A good leader will use this time to develop the skills and abilities of their followers to make them more effective in their roles. This long-term strategic direction enables effective followers to attain goals better and more often.
Leaders rarely are at the very top, the idea of a leadership ceiling is possibly a misconception. The President of the United States of America, arguably the most powerful person on the planet, is answerable to others. Just like the CEO of an organisation, who is the organisation’s leader, is operating under the votes of their directors.
Leaders have those they respect, who may be at a similar level within the given organisation. These people may not have the positional power to coerce the leader to follow their will, but as an individual person, they may have personal influence. Such characteristics are often not considered in leadership and should be.
“Leadership should be born out of the understanding of the needs of those who would be affected by it.” ― Marian Anderson
There are many more stakeholders with whom leaders engage, and as such new theory must focus on the collective use of leadership as opposed to those theories which emphasize the individual.
So, next time you are in your leadership position, consider the role you have as an integral part of a network of peers, subordinates, followers, superiors and other stakeholders.
*Photo by Christian Scolz