There is a lot of confusion out there around leadership today. Various “Management of the month club” methods would like to pretend that people have changed in some way to not need leadership anymore. Open source software projects flat organizations and large numbers of virtual employees are used as “evidence” of this. Poppycock!

Millennials and Gen X staff need leadership just as much as any generation ever did. Though they may not know it, just as their parents didn’t when they were in their twenties like me.

The term leadership is abused a lot today and needs some clarification because it has several meanings.  No title can convey true leadership, it is earned not given.  Politicians call themselves “leaders” when they are usually the opposite, preventing positive change and progress actively for personal benefit.  The opposite of a real leader who works for the greater good.  A better title would be liar or coward for most politicians or anyone that shies away from progress for personal gain.

Yes, flatter organizations are possible due to technology.  This can reduce the manager-to-employee ratio some.  Yes we can work virtually and communicate without as many meetings and managers due to the collaboration tools we have today to share information.  However, anyone that believes leadership is somehow magically not needed does not really understand what real leadership is, and has always been.  Here is some of the “Why” and how we must respond to these falsehoods created by people who don’t know much about leadership.

A “Project Manager” or “Project Leader” is not a leader in this sense of the term either.  The scale of the project is important in using the term leadership.  Am I a leader if I run at the front of the jogging pack for a mile?  Yes, by another definition, I am “first”.  However, I am not a leader in the sense of business leadership unless I assembled the team, mapped out the route, got people excited to go and made them want to go too.  Even that may be stretching it for such a small task as true leadership implies a significant challenge, not just a morning run.

Well sure a carefully crafted High-Performance Team (HPT) with the right group of very experienced people can lead a project successfully and just be left alone because they have maybe 50-100 years’ experience between them and a focused goal.  However, that goal was set by a leader as a piece of a large strategic puzzle that must be completed to set up a company for success.  Leadership? Well maybe, on a smaller scale.

Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.

– Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Leaders are even sometimes ridiculed for decades like Darwin, who delayed publication of his book Origin of Species for many years due to fear of persecution by the church. Galileo was ordered to turn himself in to the Holy Office to begin trial for holding the belief that the Earth revolves around the Sun, which was deemed heretical by the Catholic Church. President Lincoln was hated by millions in his leadership to free the slaves, etc. It is very common that most people cannot see the vision of the leader.

However, a leader is usually someone who is respected for their vision, abilities and integrity that people want to follow. Yes, want to, not have to. This needs emphasis. Management uses coercive techniques like paychecks, work hours and deadlines. Leaders do not use those things at all. They are broadcasting their vision and mission to others who want to join them to accomplish some goal together. A challenge that usually has a goal of helping people.

People are talking a lot about “Core Values”, “Culture”, “Coaching” and even self-management of groups and companies. All this is powerful stuff but does not replace the need for leadership either.  These provide some framework and direction, but not leadership per se.  The problem is that none of these do anything to replace the need for leadership but some people think they do.

Elements of true Leadership include:

  1. Leaders tap into the emotional desires of people to achieve something greater than themselves with a team. They must inspire people to go beyond what they think they can do, individually and as a team.  They must instill confidence to achieve something many think may not even be possible.  Think Ernest Shackleton.
  1. Leaders provide and communicate a vision of the future for people to pursue. This requires out-of-the-box thinking, creativity and the ability to sell that vision to others.  Leadership must provide all these things with a broader and longer term view that 95% of people and employees can Keenedy-Landing_A_man_on_The_Moonever have.  Teams do not have a unified vison in complex things.  Think the Director of a movie who sees everything in advance but brings together the best team possible and trusts them in their own areas of expertise to execute the details.
  1. Leaders make decisions based on longer-timelines with a view towards strategy and thinking about the greater good, not themselves. Leadership was John F. Kennedy saying we will “Land a man on the moon and return him safely before the decade is over.”  NASA had no idea how to do some required things at the time.  Many people thought Kennedy was a little nuts and most could not see the value to America paying for this colossal task.  Leadership has its risks.  Think JFK of course.
  1. Leaders coach people to new heights and possibilities, often ones they themselves could not even imagine. This is done in a positive way but not without realistic and honest feedback to help them see their own weaknesses too.  How often do you see a team do that?  Think your best mentor boss ever, I hope.  Or dad, or your best mentor teacher.
  1. Leaders filter decisions by many practical constraints and broad experience that most employees do not have. Some include cost, ability to finance the project, making sure the cost of marketing and sales can sell the “target customer” economically and the ability to recruit the right people and maintain competitive advantage over time for example.  Understanding the competitive dynamics of the marketplace is needed here.  And there are many other factors that few people think about or have enough information to make these leadership decisions.  It is easy to second guess the corner office or armchair quarterback on Monday morning.
  1. Leaders are thinking many moves ahead, not just one like most people. Few employees can see beyond one move, or a month or two out, and understand the complex competitive landscape well enough to make those bigMoon Landing 1920x1200 picture decisions.  Leaders need to have exceptional vision to see a possible future that they know they can make happen and set the company up for that future far in advance of any competition.  This is not just the vison but the moves and countermoves that may be needed to get there.
  1. Leaders have forethought. Research shows a very small percentage of people have the ability of this kind of “forethought”.  People make decisions based on the “now” for them.  Based on a narrow skill set they bring. Based on their own personal needs and desires. It is the rare and exceptional person that can do the opposite of all three.  Often sacrificing short-term gain for a greater good longer term.

So What About the “Self-Managed Team” as a Replacement for Leadership?

Zappos is running a management experiment that removes “managers” in favor of a team approach called Holacracy.  I predict it will fail miserably, though few companies can outsource the bulk of their work to Amazon and could even attempt such a management structure, or lack thereof.  This management structure has more rules than any hierarchical structure ever did.  See it here.  It is 10,145 words versus the 4,400 words in the U.S. Constitution to run the country.  Some love this idea I am sure, but an exodus of 18% of the employees, likely the better ones, says many do not.

So I think you probably get that I believe true Leadership (yes capital “L”) is required for anything significant to succeed.  It stresses the mind to think of anything noteworthy ever accomplished without a “leader” involved.  Trying to eliminate the role of leaders is doomed to failure.  I hope all my competitors try this one.  There is no commune type structure or pure democratic structure that has ever created anything that has changed the world, unless you count cults which manipulate weak people and harmful changes caused by a sociopathic leader.  A company is not a democracy, try sailing a ship that way some time and see how it works with only a small group of people.  The buck must stop somewhere without a debate.  There is a reason the Captain says “You have the bridge” when they turn over control to another individual.

I have been researching this and have yet to find a single corporation running this way successfully.  In fact successful corporations like General Electric are filled with good leaders in every division with Leadership Development programs to grow leaders.  With creative leaders, R & D leaders, management leaders and product champions leaders.  Yes as I said earlier no title conveys true leadership.  Abilities, vision, ethics and other qualities make leaders, not promotions.  Remember people follow leaders because they want to, not because they have to.

Vision and leadership comes from an individual alone, not a group.  People agree to follow and trust that person’s integrity, ability and vision.  This can be a “collective vision” and should absolutely be developed collaboratively, but it is owned by one person, internally in their head alone.  Collaboration helps educate and get buy-in.  It taps the brain trust of the entire team.  It does not “create” the vision because a vision is a mental model in one person’s head that comes from imagination, just like a Director of a movie or author of a novel.

Management is about arranging and telling.  Leadership is about nurturing and enhancing.

— Tom Peters

The need for a leader is an evolutionary imperative baked into our DNA from 10 million years of evolution to work in tribes as a group to gain protection.  Even experienced and proven leaders need to “override” that little bird on their shoulder that says “You’re not good enough”.  This is a social protective mechanism built into our DNA that we cannot change.  It evolved to allow us to follow, as well as lead.  Projecting confidence in a crisis is a mechanism for community survival.  In any emergency people look around for who is most confident to follow.  We must build a system that is compatible with the human condition we cannot change, not try to change it.

So please, don’t tell me companies don’t need leaders.  That is just foolhardy speculation with no examples of success to support it.  An obviously false theory up for experimentation.  And please don’t tell me “all people are created equal” either.  That just ignores nature, nurture, experience, common sense, drive, biology and about a hundred other factors that make us all different and special too.  We were not all born leaders but most people can develop leadership capabilities.

So next time someone tells you leaders are not necessary and they don’t need (or want) to follow ask them this: “Name one great thing ever accomplished without a leader?”  Yeah, that’s right. There aren’t any.

I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.

  — Alexander the Great


More on the Zappos Experiment:

And some results 2 years later: Still a confused organization bleeding people, the best leaving because they are not appreciated with respect, advancement and financial rewards for their top performance. Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) a 250,000+ employee corporation that owned the minicomputer business in the 1980-1990 tried putting all salespeople on salary (no commissions for better performance). The result – all the best sales people left and DEC no longer exists. Pretending everyone is the same attracts the most incompetent people, like in government, who cannot perform well.