Everyone knows that mass marketing is more expensive than niche
marketing and, worse, that it can miss the target audience
altogether. Niche marketing works because someone has taken the
trouble to be precise about the target market. Much of contemporary
leadership development has the same problem because we have failed
to be precise about the meaning of leadership. Millions of dollars
are hence wasted on developing a wide range of skills in people
while no one is really sure that leadership is even being developed
My aim in this article is to persuade you that our conventional
concept of leadership is wrong, that what is called leadership
development does not develop leaders at all but rather rounded
executives. I will argue that leadership, like creativity, occurs
naturally in people and can only be fostered, that it is not a
learnable skill set.
A crazy idea about leadership
Crazy ideas are sometimes true. I have a crazy idea about
leadership that I would like you to consider:
Leadership has nothing to do with managing people or getting things
done. To see how this wild claim might be true, consider three
1. What do Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela have in
common? King was a great orator, Gandhi rather quieter. No doubt
they had a vision. But, an overlooked theme they shared is this:
The target of their leadership efforts was the same - their
respective governments. King held demonstrations in Montgomery,
Alabama to persuade the city, state and federal governments to end
segregation on buses. Gandhi protested against British rule over
India and Mandela to end white rule in South Africa. King's
leadership ended when the U.S. Supreme Court declared bus
segregation unconstitutional. He had nothing to do with
implementing any policy. The key point here is that none of these
icons of leadership managed their respective governments when they
initially showed their leadership and hence had no power to
implement their visions. Their leadership came to an end once their
visions were adopted. So here are great instances of leadership
that are completely divorced from people management.
2. Have you ever shown leadership by example? Suppose you are an
excellent customer service employee with first-class training in
serving customers and you have just joined a new employer where
customer service is poor. You carry on serving customers as normal.
Soon customers begin asking for you and, a bit later, your
colleagues start following your example. You had no intention to
influence them, you said nothing to them and you do not manage
anyone. Is this not leading by example despite the fact that you
are not deliberately working through subordinates to achieve a
3. Have you ever convinced your boss to take a new course of
action? Suppose you have an idea for a new product or a better way
of doing something and, after arguing long and hard, you convince
your boss to adopt your idea. Your boss gives you the credit but
takes care of implementing your proposal. Your leadership is
bottomup in this case, but again, your boss does not report to you,
even informally. What's going on in these three examples of
- Leadership comes to an end once those with the power to act do
- The person showing leadership does not manage the target
- Leadership = showing a new way, challenging the status quo.
- Leadership does not entail managing people to get things done.
The first statement is most obviously true when the desired act is
a simple decision. When a lengthy implementation process is needed,
further injections of leadership might be required to resell the
journey enroute, but most of the getting there depends on effective
There are examples of leadership from the sidelines or bottom-up
all around us.
Consider Microsoft following the lead of Apple when they moved from
DOS to Windows, copying Apple's graphical user interface on
computers or following the lead of Netscape when they came out with
their browser, Internet Explorer. Innovators in all companies often
take their lead from industry gurus. There is no managerial
relationship between leaders and followers in any of these cases.
Am I not just talking about informal leadership? No, because
informal leadership as conventionally conceived is the same
confused jumble of management and leadership notions as traditional
formal leadership. Both involve taking charge of a group to achieve
a goal. My view is different because I am saying that leadership
merely promotes new directions, period.
What is leadership, really?
I define leadership as promoting new directions. This means
challenging the status quo. It is a one-way impact on people.
Leadership only occurs when people are influenced to do something
new or to change what they believe. Leadership cannot be defined in
terms of getting work done through people. Otherwise we can't
explain bottom-up leadership or that of outsiders like King, Gandhi
But, you rightly ask, how do we explain what executives are doing
when they inspire employees to improve their performance, if this
is not leadership? The answer is: management. But not the
old-fashioned controlling type of management. We need to upgrade
management along the lines of the sports coach. Management needs to
be reborn as a supportive, facilitative, coaching and inspiring
activity rather than cast in the rubbish bin for being controlling,
mechanical and bureaucratic.
Why no one wants to be a manager
Many popular writers on leadership - Warren Bennis, Tom Peters,
Kouzes and Posner and John Kotter - did their seminal writing in
the 1980s when everyone was calling for an end to management, for
managers to be replaced by leaders. This was a colossal error, a
gross overreaction to the success of the Japanese commercial
invasion of the West in the 70s and 80s. A scapegoat was needed for
the West's poor performance against the Japanese and management got
fingered for this role. It did not occur to anyone to revise
management instead of throwing it in the trash.
What happened next?
Leadership writers in earlier decades talked about the following
binary oppositions when explaining what made for effectiveness in
- Consideration for people versus initiating structure
- Theory Y versus Theory X
- Democratic versus autocratic
- Transformational (inspiring) versus transactional
Those in charge of people were said to flex between these opposing
styles or to combine them depending on the situation. But after the
Japanese invasion, leadership got identified with the good guy
(people) side of these pairs, while management got condemned to the
bad guy (task) side, a great mistake.
If leadership is focused simply on championing new directions, we
need to upgrade management to take care of getting things done
constructively. By defining leadership and management as
functions, one to promote new directions and the other to
execute them, we can leave completely open the means of moving
people. As it is, leadership is virtually defined as being
inspirational where this means speaking in an inspiring way.
But leading by example does not even entail speaking and we know
that leadership can be shown quietly. Health care and other high
tech organizations are big on what they call evidence-based
practice. Here, leadership needs to cite hard evidence for new
proposals, not necessarily be inspirational.
The bottom line is that leadership is not always inspiring while
managers can be just as inspiring or transformational as leaders.
They merely have a different function: the inspiring leader moves
us to change direction and the inspiring manager gets us to perform
the new task as well as possible.
This is counterintuitive because we normally associate leadership
with having powerful influencing skills. Why is this? Because we
have traditionally identified leadership with having what it takes
to rise to significant positions of authority. But we now live in
an age of guerrilla warfare: leadership can come from anywhere,
even outside the organization. And the ability to develop and
promote new ideas is a more important source of power than physical
strength and the force of personality. The need for a
non-positional concept of leadership is as great as our need to
innovate and improve processes faster.
What does it take to show leadership?
Notice that my question is not about becoming or
being a leader, which suggests a role. Leadership is an
occasional act. The most empowering implication of my view of
leadership is that you don't have to wait to be promoted to a
''leadership position'' to show leadership. This means that
everyone can show leadership now, so long as he or she has
something worth saying and the courage to say it - bearing in mind
that I'm not talking here about informal leadership as
conventionally conceived. Having the courage of one's convictions
is the essential trait to show leadership. This, in itself, is
nothing new, but it has been clouded in a fog of other factors that
are really more central to management, such as being able to get
the best out of people relative to a performance target.
Also, if we set aside the qualities necessary to ascend the
hierarchy, nothing is left but the following three elements:
- Something worth saying.
- The courage to say it.
- Influencing skills.
We develop things worth saying by immersing ourselves in some
subject matter. We can also improve our influencing skills - within
limits. An extreme introvert will struggle to become an emotionally
expressive, lively cheerleader type. Courage is even harder to
develop. Like creativity, some people are more naturally disposed
to challenge the status quo and risk group rejection than others.
The drive to lead, therefore, is like youthful rebelliousness, not
a learned skill set.
Does this mean that there are born leaders? The old form of this
question asked whether some people are born to find their way to
the top of a hierarchy naturally. I ask a different question: What
qualities do people have who challenge the status quo and promote
new directions? Courage is key but not a learned skill. Like
creativity, having the courage to promote change and the
willingness to risk group rejection are not acquired traits. This
sounds disempowering but it is not as excluding as hierarchical
leadership, given the limited room at the top. Also, leadership
admits of degrees, ranging from radical proposals to small,
incremental suggestions for improving everyday operational
processes. Many people have enough courage to advocate an
incremental change; hence many more people can show leadership
under my reformulation.
Fostering leadership and developing executives.
A major implication of my view is that so-called leadership
development programmes really develop rounded executives, not
leaders. Like creativity, leadership can only be fostered by a
supportive culture. Management skills: how to delegate and motivate
employees, coordinate diverse stakeholders and control costs can
all be learned.
Management is just as vital as leadership, if not more so. Managers
not only need to motivate employees and maintain efficiency, they
also need to foster leadership in others.
Benefits of leadership reinvented
- All employees become more engaged by the realization that they
can show leadership in their current, non-management positions. Executives gain better focus so they can add more value instead of
being expected to be all things to all people.
- The leadership load is more widely shared, thereby increasing
the chances of faster innovation and more rapid continuous
- More fully engaged employees translates into better talent
management and retention of key players.
Opportunities for training and development
- Executive development programmes need to be revamped to reflect
the realities of what leadership means.
- Executives need training and coaching on their new roles, how
they can add value when not showing leadership, how to cope with
not having a monopoly on leadership and how to manage more
challenging subordinates who strive to show bottom-up leadership.
- Cultures need changing to do a better job of fostering
- Much money can be saved by a more precise focus on what counts
as leadership and what is management.
Our basic model of leadership - being a hero who can ascend to the
top of a hierarchy - has not changed fundamentally in the last 50
years despite the millions of words written about it. It is time
for a fresh start. My view preserves the common sense insight that
leaders provide direction and challenge the status quo, but we need
a clearer separation of leadership from management, one that allows
management a more constructive place in organizations and that
shows how leadership is not defined in positional terms. Only this
way can we properly account for leadership from outsiders and
bottom-up from frontline knowledge workers.
*Mitch McCrimmon is a business psychologist with over 30 years
experience in management assessment and executive coaching. His
latest book Burn!7 Leadership Myths in Ashes is
published in March, 2006. For more information, visit
*Note: This is the author's original submitted article and has not
been edited for style and content by ASTD.