If you think leadership is about having followers – about influencing others – you’re wrong.
I’M HAVING A continuing problem with what I call “The Cult of Leadership”. Take five minutes to look around the web and you’ll note how almost all material on leadership focuses on having followers, on leading others, on “influence”.
This not only mis-characterizes good leadership, it’s just plain bad advice. You cultivate the attributes of good leadership not in a quest to lead others, but because the fundamentals of good leadership are vital to success and happiness, whether an organization’s or your own.
Here’s a pretty representative sampling:
Peter Drucker (Management Guru): “The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers.”
Rubbish. Hitler had lots of followers and look how that turned out.
John Maxwell (Leadership Guru): “Leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less.”
Bollocks. Mao influenced hundreds of millions. All dead.
Kevin Kruse (Forbes): Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.
Better, but still wrong. What if the goal is a bad one? And what about all those innovators and entrepreneurs who work on great things all on their own?
So, here’s a proper definition:
Good leadership means choosing the right objective, the best way to reach it, and inspiring others to join you.
Vision first and always as the primary.
Then strategy and tactics.
No “influence”, because you can influence by force, by fraud, by intimidation, or by blackmail; none of which makes for thinking, value-adding followers. Others should “follow” because they’re inspired by what you’ve set-out to achieve and how you’re going about it. Period.
Getting others to follow your lead may be important, but NEVER let it become your primary focus. Your primary focus is, and should always be, to achieve a Vision, to create value. The means of achieving that Vision, which is where engaging other people comes in, are secondary (not unimportant – just not primary).
The moment you lose sight of the Vision, or it becomes blurred, and you act primarily to keep or attract followers, to lead other people, you risk taking yourself, and those who follow you, in the wrong direction.
Then there’s the fact that along with your responsibility to be accountable for your own life, you need to allow (and encourage), others to be accountable for theirs. Good leadership means thinking for yourself, developing an understanding of the human condition, (how people think, feel, and behave), constantly seeking to expand your horizons, and pursuing value for all you’re worth.
The element of leadership that entails others following is a byproduct.
Thinking people choose to engage with you in achieving your Vision because they’re inspired by the picture you paint and by the way you go about achieving it; by how you go about creating value, and because you engage with them justly.
Yes, some people enjoy the act of leading other people, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Unless it’s the primary. Anyone motivated to lead by the desire to have followers, to have power over others, is likely going in the wrong direction. You don’t achieve a vision by looking back (at those that are following), but by keeping your eye on the goal and moving forward. You have to be driven by what’s in front, not by those that are following behind.
The focus on “leading”, rather than on achieving (and continuously refining and evolving) a vision, is perhaps the biggest cause of organizational failure.
It’s the trap new supervisors often fall into when they take on their first management role.
It’s why middle-managers can stumble when they take on a new department or division.
It’s the quicksand entrepreneurs often wade into when their venture gains momentum.
It’s the failing of many a “career CEO” who moves into an unknown field.
It’s the reason so many NGOs become navel-gazing, self-serving, resource-consuming bureaucracies with no clear, focused, and defining mission.
And it’s caused untold death and misery as militaristic despots throughout history sought political power for self-aggrandization.
Don’t worry about leading others.
Foster your independence by thinking well, work on your people skills so that you engage with others well and fairly, be proactive in expanding your knowledge and skills, and work to stay passionate about all that you undertake.
And if you don’t have a compelling vision, or the vision of the organization you work for leaves you cold, the last thing you should be focusing on is leading others. If you don’t know what you want to achieve, or can’t get behind what your employer is trying to achieve, it’s time to re-assess your life’s direction. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT, flog a dead horse. I guarantee you that the pain of changing will be less than the pain of stagnation. And don’t, EVER, lead for the sake of leading. Lead only when you’ve got some good place to go.
8 comments on “If you think leadership is about having followers – about influencing others – you’re wrong.”
Outstanding. You’re absolutely right.
Michael, I just discovered your blog and your spot-on vision: Lead Yourself. Inspire Others. BRAVO. I look forward to learning more!
Cheers James. Glad this resonated with you. MJ
Hi Ann, come back any time 🙂
You can only be a leader if you have people who are willing to follow you (not coerced as in Hitler or Mao). “Willing is the key’. To create willing followers you need to:
– Inspire people in your vision
– Set a strategy and execute on it
– Create a high performing team around you
– Understand what motivates your people and get on with it
– Challenge the status quo and constantly improve what you do and the way you do it
– Engage your people in shared values.
This is not everything a leader must do, but if you do these things you’ll be on the right track!
Thanks for your input Ian.