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A New Understanding of Leadership

What do Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Adolf Hitler, and George W. Bush have in common?

They are largely credited for determining the fate of an organization or even entire country, for better or worse, whether this was creating what is now the most valuable company in the world, changing the way we communicate with each other via social media, radicalizing Germany and leading the world into World War II, or, depending on your political position, leading the Western world post 9/11 or sowing the seeds for the divide between the Western world and the Muslim world.

As intuitive as such a view may be – it could not be further removed from reality. Much has been written about the influence that Karl Rove has had on George W. Bush. What would Facebook be today without the pioneering work of the Winklevoss twins or Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, famously portrayed in the movie ‘The Social Network”? Many people know about the role that Steve Wozniak has played in the early days of Apple to support the vision of Steve Jobs. But very few people know about Ronald Wayne – the third founder of Apple who provided administrative oversight of the young venture. The case of Adolf Hitler is somewhat more complicated, but even in his case, as hard as it is to admit this as a German myself, he had the support of the German population before and during World War II.

Why are the Winklevoss twins, Eduardo Saverin, Karl Rove, Ronald Wayne, or the support of an entire nation only a footnote in history, while numerous treatises, autobiographies, and books are written about the leadership qualities of the Steve Jobs of this world? Why do we idolize or demonize these leaders in an almost cult like fashion? The answer is that leadership is over-glorified. We all want to be leaders, emulating the great leaders of our times. Such confidence in the magic powers of leaders can certainly soothe our existential anxiety in an uncertain world. Such a view becomes highly problematic, however, when leaders in organizations and countries are chosen not because of their expertise, understanding of followers, or ability to work with followers towards a common goal, but because of a misguided belief in their magic powers.

I believe two corrections to our understanding of leadership are necessary. First, we need to change our mental models of who should be viewed as a leader. Second, we need to change our understanding of how a leader should lead followers.

We have traditionally equated a position of authority with leadership and influence over others. This view is so pervasive that it has dominated the public discourse on leadership and the academic literature alike. Such a perspective ignores, however, the leadership behaviours that are performed by individuals who are not in a position of authority. Take Pakistani teenager Malala – winning the nobel peace prize in 2014 for her activism for female education and opportunities in life. Up to this point, Malala has been the youngest person ever to be awarded this honour, in spite of not being in a position of authority and influence when advocating for the rights of women to education and opportunity. Few soccer fans will forget the heroics of Bastian Schweinsteiger in the final of the soccer World Cup 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, persevering in spite of being fouled repeatedly, with a cut underneath his eye, running more than any other player on the field (15 km during 120 minutes of action), directing and organizing the German midfield and leading the German team to victory. His performance is so noteworthy because he led his team in the absence of any formal leadership role. What these examples show is that leadership can be performed by many – it should not be restricted to people in a position of power and authority in an organization.

The Need for a Broader and More Inclusive Understanding

Restated, leadership should not be defined by the authority vested in a person’s position, but by the impact that actions have on others within a team, organization, or society. Not only does this perspective empower individuals, it also relieves leaders from the burden of being solely responsible for the outcomes of the work of a team. Allowing for the possibility of shared leadership can promote a more inclusive decision making climate, lead to higher levels of motivation in teams, and ensure higher levels of mental and physical health of formal team leaders.

Are there examples of organizations that have implemented a more inclusive concept of leadership already? Most certainly. Many organizations in knowledge-intensive industries have recognized that they depend on the insights and leadership of lower-level employees working in their local work context for the organization to remain adaptive and innovative as a whole. Such an understanding requires the empowerment of employees on all levels in the organization. Similarly, more and more teams and organizations have started to abandon hierarchical leadership structures. An extreme example here is Valve – a video game developer that has abandoned all forms of hierarchy in the organization. Employees have the freedom to choose whatever project they want to work on. Individuals self-organize in teams based on the need to complete a feature or complete a game, and then re-assemble in different teams to work on different projects. The big advantage of this extreme form of shared leadership and flat hierarchies is that it has led to a sense of collective engagement and an innovative climate that is second to none.

Adapting our Understanding of the Qualities and Attributes that Leaders should Possess

Traditionally, we have subscribed to a leadership model that emphasizes strength, assertiveness, decisiveness, and extraversion of the leader. And indeed, it has been shown that it is most often the most extraverted male in a group of individuals who emerges as a leader. Interestingly, however, this person is not always the one who is most qualified to lead a team. In fact, everyone who has worked in a team led by an extraverted idiot knows that there is little worse than a person who kills the initiative of others with his dominant style, without being able to address the real challenges of a team. Our implicit models of leadership date back to ancient times in which hunting activities and warfare between rival tribes required physical strength, endurance, and decisiveness in actions. In those times, a masculine-oriented leadership model was adequate. Today, it is a nuisance at best and a disaster at worst.

Research by Wharton professor Adam Grant has shown that there are settings in which introverted leaders outperform extraverted leaders. Whenever a team is operating in a dynamic environment that requires the initiative of individual team members to recognize subtle cues for change, introverted leaders are more effective in bringing out the creative and proactive potential of their employees. They are better listeners and followers feel more comfortable to voice suggestions for change.

What Does all of This Mean for Organizations?

First, organizations should design career paths that do not equate leadership with positions of authority. Some consulting firms have created positions of knowledge experts that do not supervise a team of consultants, but that perform leadership activities for projects that have a specific content focus or industry focus. Such career models offer opportunities for promotion, learning, and development to employees who are less extraverted, but nevertheless key assets for their respective organizations. Similarly, compensation packages should be more flexible and not just mirror span of control. What should be avoided is the rush to the top in which professional development and career advancement are only possible by increasing the span of control of an employee. Many lose out in such a competitive environment and become frustrated. Moreover, such a competitive climate breeds and perpetuates a masculine-oriented leadership climate in which extraverts and sensation seekers are most likely to thrive.

Second, organizations should change the leadership model that they use for the selection and development of leaders. Having worked with many organizations in different industries over my career, as a consultant and as an academic, I have been shocked to see just how pervasive a masculine-oriented model of leadership continues to be. Organizations should start to select leaders not based on extraversion, assertiveness, and dominance, but based on the potential for listening to the needs of followers, and based on their ability to deliver innovation and change. In her recent essay on Larry Page in the Howl, Gabrielle Anagnostopoulos makes an important point: “Behind every innovative and creative business is a leader who values change above most things.”

Fortunately, some progress has been made. Adam Grant reported recently that is has become acceptable among MBA students to describe themselves as introverted in front of others – something that would have been highly unusual just a decade ago. In fact, when confronted with this question in a core MBA course on leadership, one third of the student body publically identified as introverts. Organizations need to follow suit and identify the quiet leader that can listen to others and inspire change.

Matthias Spitzmueller

Assistant Professor (Organizational Behaviour) at the Smith School of Business, Queen’s University

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