It's pretty well known that mass marketing costs much more than
niche marketing and, worse, it can miss the target audience
altogether. Niche marketing works because someone has taken the
time to precisely target a receptive market. Much of contemporary
leadership development encounters the same problem as mass
marketing. Why? Because we have failed to precisely define the
meaning of leadership. Millions of dollars are wasted on developing
a range of skills in people while no one is really sure that
leadership is even being developed in anyone.
Our conventional concept of leadership is wrong; what is called
leadership development does not develop leaders at all. Leadership,
like creativity, occurs naturally in people and can only be
fostered, not learned.
A Crazy Idea About Leadership
Crazy ideas are sometimes true. Consider this crazy idea:
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 Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson
Mandela have in common?
No doubt all three men had a vision. But, an overlooked theme they
shared is this: The target of their leadership efforts was the
same"their respective governments. But none of these leadership
icons managed their respective governments when they initially
showed their leadership and hence had no power to implement their
visions. 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. This is leading by example, despite the fact
that you are not deliberately working through subordinates to
achieve a goal.
3. Have you ever convinced your boss to take a new course of
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 bottom-up, but
again, your boss does not report to you, even informally.
What Is Leadership?
Leadership is promoting new directions. This means challenging the
status quo. It has a one-way effect 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, and Mandela.
But, if this is not leadership, how do we explain what executives
are doing when they inspire employees to improve their performance?
The answer: management. But it is not the old-fashioned,
controlling type of management. Management needs to be reborn as a
supportive, facilitative, and inspiring activity.
Leadership and Management Reborn
If leadership is focused on championing new directions, we need to
upgrade management to take care of getting things done
constructively. Leadership and management are functions,
one promotes new directions and the other executes them.
What does it take to show leadership? This question is not
about becoming or being a leader, which suggests
a role. Leadership is an act. The most empowering
implication of this view of leadership is that you don't have to
wait to be promoted to a leadership position to show leadership.
Everyone can show leadership, as long as he or she has something
worth saying and the courage to say it.
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. This is a different question: What
qualities do people have who challenge the status quo and promote
new directions? Courage is key. Having the courage to promote
change and the willingness to risk group rejection are not acquired
This sounds disempowering, but it is not as excluding as
hierarchical leadership, given the limited room at the top. Many
people have enough courage to advocate an incremental change; hence
many more people can show leadership.
In fact, when leadership is reinvented,
- employees become more engaged by the realization that they can
show leadership in their current, nonmanagement 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
What This Means for Training and Development
This could sound like training and development professionals are
not needed in the leadership-development capacity. This is not the
case. Training and development professionals should conquer the
- Revamp executive-development programs to reflect the realities
of what leadership means.
- Train and coach executives 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 subordinates who strive
to show bottom-up leadership.
- Help change the culture to one that fosters dispersed
- Show management how much money can be saved by a more precise
focus on what counts as leadership or management.
Our basic model of leadership, being a hero who can ascend to the
top of a hierarchy, has not changed in the last 50 years, but it is
time for a fresh start. The view presented in this article
preserves the common-sense insight that leaders provide direction
and challenge the status quo, but we need a more clear separation
of leadership from management, one that allows management a more
constructive place in organizations and that does not define
leadership in positional terms.