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Untethering Leadership from Leaders


We’re stuck in the rut of “leader” and “follower” identities. Is there a way out?

Paper planes on a blue background

Every few years, I fish out a yellowed newspaper clipping from my files, circa the early 1990s. It’s an ad produced by another business school touting its new executive MBA, fronted by a resolute white male leader. The grim-faced besuited alum declares:

“WHY DID I CHOOSE [business school name]?

Smug in tone, condescending in mindset. Reflecting a conception of leadership as the fixed identity of an all-powerful seer rather than the set of situational behaviours practised, on any typical day, even by us riff-raff. There is a straight, short line from this ad back to 1911, when Frederick Winslow Taylor, the father of scientific management, pronounced that “mentally sluggish” followers needed leaders who gave orders. 

I use this ad as a rough benchmark to measure how far we have come in understanding the function of leadership in more mature, realistic and useful terms. That ad from the early 1990s would not appear in today’s business press. We’re more likely to read about the wonders of self-managing teams, the self-organizing principles of holacracy, the distributed leadership of the Orpheus orchestra, and even the shared responsibility embedded in Ubuntu philosophy. 

Yet, even today, when we say leadership, we still envision an individual, a heroic identity worthy of aspiration. And followership is still viewed as passive and conforming, the less spoken of and studied the better. 

This even though “leader” is not an identity in the way that one’s ethnic background or political affiliation are potential identities. People in formal leadership positions do not always practise leadership, and people in support roles sometimes do. CEOs can lead executive teams, take direction from their board chairs and heed the call of their religious leaders, all in the same day. 

There are many leader archetypes (from autocratic to transformational) and “follower” archetypes (from passive to proactive). And they constantly shape one another. 

Management expert Dennis Tourish said it well: “In the messy and complex world that we see around us, as opposed to that depicted in most leadership research, leaders and followers are interacting organizational actors, whose identities as leaders and followers are simultaneously constructed and reconstructed by the force of their ongoing respective struggles to realize their . . . potential.” 

The cost of misidentification 

Before writing this off as a harmless semantic misunderstanding, consider the real negative consequences flowing from this mental model of leaders and followers. 

First, for people in formal leadership positions: When they’re caught in this seductive identity trap, when ingratiating underlings withhold critical information for fear of backlash or exaggerate support of dubious strategies, formal leaders can develop a sense of privilege and narcissism. They fall in love with themselves, and their performance suffers. 

At the very least, formal leaders put on a pedestal can be weighed down by expectations to resolve complex issues single-handedly. They can suffer stress and poor mental health as a result. 

Labelling has an even bigger effect on people in non-leader roles. Followers, for example, can develop a sense of learned helplessness. In one classic study, university students assigned to “leader” and “follower” groups were told someone was choking outside the room. Eighty per cent of those assigned to “leader” groups left the room and intervened, while only 35 per cent from the non-leader groups intervened. 

Since the 1970s, it has been shown that people adjust their performance based on the expectations of others. One experiment showed that when people were randomly assigned the label of “worker”, they felt worse about themselves and declined tasks they could perform. Those who were labelled “boss” felt better. Before being assigned a role, people performed similarly on tasks. 

Julian Barling, a professor of organizational behaviour at Smith School of Business, found similar results in a series of studies conducted with Colette Hoption and Amy Christie, former Smith PhD students. Their studies showed that people randomly placed in a “follower” group felt less confident and were less willing to take on additional assignments compared to people in the “leader” group. 

Who really has the right stuff? 

The other risk for people who show great leadership potential is that they are denied opportunities because they don’t fit the part.

One fascinating study tracked 218 male Royal Marines recruits who completed 32 weeks of infantry training. At the start of the study, the recruits self-identified as leaders and followers. At the end of the training, the recruits and the commanders who oversaw their training cast votes for an award to the recruits who showed the most leadership ability. The winners were the recruits who self-identified as followers rather than as leaders.

Interestingly, though, the researchers also found that the recruits who saw themselves as natural leaders were seen by their commanders as having more leadership potential than recruits who self-identified as followers. 

In this study at least, people within the group who personally experienced the ability of colleagues to influence others recognized their colleagues’ leadership potential, even though the colleagues self-identified as followers. “In contrast,” the researchers concluded, “those who stand outside the group appear to be most attuned to a candidate’s correspondence to generic ideas of what a leader should look like.” 

Questioning leadership development 

The Royal Marines study points to the need to re-imagine leadership development, both in how “high potentials” are selected for enrichment and in what is being taught. 

In the first case, the study clearly revealed a misalignment between group members and commanders on leadership potential. A more democratic way of evaluating employees would undoubtedly surface people who would normally be overlooked because they don’t “look” like leaders.

In the second, the formal development of leadership abilities would benefit by exploring the fluid dynamics of leading and following. If we are all leaders or followers in certain situations, for example, what can we learn about the nature of leading from our experience of following and vice versa? 

Another area worth exploring in leadership development is the nature of workplace power. Who has power? Are people in non-leadership roles more powerful than they believe? Can self-managing teams re-calibrate power differentials? If so, what structures and processes are needed to avoid functional vacuums and ensure leader-associated responsibilities don’t fall between the cracks? 

The Covid interlude offered a marvellous natural experiment in leadership. If ever there was an opportunity to observe heroic leadership in action across society, this was it. Some of Canada’s formal leaders in government, health care and business did shine, but the real story was the unconventional and spontaneous leadership by individuals who never saw themselves as leaders. 

I’m thinking of the Toronto business analyst who started a project that connected able-bodied volunteers with house-bound people needing someone to run an errand or make a delivery. The Ugandan health-care worker who, on daily trips, used a megaphone from the back of a motorbike to urge villagers to get vaccinated. The 99-year-old former British Army officer who walked 100 laps of his garden with the aid of his walker to raise money for the National Health Service. 

These inspired acts during the height of Covid-19 were not framed as leadership, and the people behind them would probably be uncomfortable with that label. But they clearly fit the definition. 

Henry Mintzberg, the Montreal-based academic, management expert and beaver sculpture collector, would see such Covid-era initiatives as acts of “communityship.” Mintzberg sees groups or communities as the heart of organizations, struggling to thrive in the face of hierarchical authority by out-of-touch leaders

In the place of “macroleading”, he called for restrained leaders who intervene only when necessary and who help grow internal communities in which employees are naturally energized to get on with their work — sometimes to take the initiative and other times to follow. 

It has been 15 years since Mintzberg formulated the idea. While some firms have adopted communityship in various forms, it has not exactly caught fire, perhaps because the mechanics of enacting communityship have not been sufficiently thought through. 

But the basis of his call to action — that organizations are communities of human beings, not collections of human resources — resonates more than ever. Workplaces that find a way to make this rallying cry real give us the freedom to lead and to follow with passion, when the moment arrives. 

Alan Morantz is the senior editor at Smith Business Insight.