WHEN DID EVERYONE BECOME A LEADER ?
March 10, 2014 5 Comments
“Life isn’t easy, and leadership is harder still.”
Bard College Professor Walter Russell Mead
I can remember a time when the term “leader” was used to describe the most senior person in any human run entity, such as the CEO of a large company, a President or Prime Minister of a country that actually had a seat at the United Nations, or even the head of any religious organisation that needed more than one minibus to take all its adherents to the annual sausage sizzle. (See “Management or Leadership” posted March 7, 2011).
This does not seem to be the case today, when we appear willing to accord a leadership title to all.
It is as though words like “specialist”, supervisor” and even “manager” have all been discarded from our business lexicon.
Project Managers have been replaced by Project Leads and Team Leaders, even if the entire team consists of 2-3 people, Senior Maths Teachers in schools are now The Maths Leader, and Shift Leader has replaced Shift Supervisor even in small factories.
My first promotion in 1968 was from the position of Computer Programmer to the role of being in charge of a 6-man programming team, which carried the exalted title of Senior Programmer. Today that title is more likely to be Leader Software Development, just as the person who is responsible for looking after the elevator staff at Harrods Department Store in London will no doubt be carrying the title of Leader Vertical Displacement Services.
Even my next promotion carried the title of Supervisor, and it took me another two years to actually get to a position that carried the word “Manager” in the title. We had a leader … he was the CEO.
I find that it is very rare these days that anyone even talks about management training, as people who are seen as being of management potential are now sent on Leadership Development Programmes rather than management training, despite the fact that statistics tell us that most will never get beyond a first level management position. Even Primary school teachers today go on leadership development courses even if most don’t/won’t/can’t become a school principal, and just want to be able to teach young children, and to do it well.
Is it just a question of time before we replace the increasingly more humbly titled MBA with the more importantly sounding MLA (Mater of Leadership Attainment), as business schools finally come to the realisation that this is a whole new gravy train?
I was recently asked to come and talk about leadership at an annual company event that brings together all staff that are in any “people responsible” roles (to be somewhat cautious in my use of language) for a 2-day talk fest to kick off the new business year. In discussing the remit with my host, I innocently asked whether, as my session would be on the topic of Leadership, I could assume that I would be addressing the senior executive team. It turned out that I would actually be presenting to everyone except their “Top-100” senior managers, being the 1000 or so first and middle level management.
When I asked whether, based on the audience, discussing “management rather than leadership” would not be more appropriate, I was told that the company had decided to run a programme that was planned to make everyone “a leader in their role”, and that this was all part of the key messaging of this year’s kick-off meeting. My suggestion that what he was describing was surely more about “empowerment, engagement, taking responsibility, initiative, autonomy and showing the way” rather than being about “leadership” almost lost me the assignment.
However, as it was an existing client, and it was a good fee, I titled my session, as they had suggested, “We are all leaders” and spoke about “empowerment, engagement, taking responsibility, initiative, autonomy and showing the way”.
I do wonder however, whether we have come to a point where the word “leadership” has become so overused that it is losing its true meaning, just like the word “cloud” is today in the tech industry where everything is now labelled as being cloud, when much of it is really just smoke.
Are we trying to give everyone the title of leader as this then removes the need for senior management to actually do something about “empowerment, engagement, taking responsibility, initiative, autonomy and showing the way” ? By making everyone a leader does that just conveniently shift this responsibility from the top of the pyramid down to the individual ? Despite the changes in titles I have not seen the commensurate increases in authority and levels of freedom that one would normally associate with someone in a leadership role.
I salute the whole idea of giving people more freedom, fewer barriers, more responsibility, the right to manage themselves and how they do their job, as I have long believed that when we remove the shackles from people, many will take the opportunity to soar rather than just make do.
I am also not questioning that people can take up a temporary leadership role dependant on the situation being faced at the time, like one team member being quiet during a team discussion on technology, but leading the discussion when the topic switches to sales and marketing.
But I don’t think that this makes them a leader. It can, however, make them a liberated employee who is committed to making a serious contribution to the company in areas where they have subject matter expertise, and as such we should treat them with respect, hear what they have to say, and make sure that we nurture them as one day, in the right environment, they may actually become a true leader.
If we really want to build leaders, we need to give people the culture and the freedom to act, to learn and to grow, rather than to just give them a title with the word “leader” embedded in it.
“Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work and time. And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal.” American Football Coach Vince Lombardi (1913-1970).