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Follow the leader

Follow the Leader

When you ask the average person to define leadership, most people will talk about a role at the top. In few or many words, they start describing a boss, or someone in charge of a company, or a group. Before you can understand why this is wrong, you have to understand what leadership use to mean, and what it means now.

Leadership use to be based on power.
You had to be strong. You had to have persuasive abilities. Everything was about how you could control the rest of the group through powerful means.

Leadership use to be based on layers of power.
Companies weren’t so complex, so the people at the top could easily have control over the pulse of the company. By forming sub layers of power with upper and then middle and then lower management, top up reporting allowed for relevant information to be funneled upward, and commands then funneled downward.

Following a leader has been taught from early on.
We were taught to stand in lines, sit down for hours at a time, only speak when spoken to. We were taught to NEVER challenge authority. We were created to be excellent soldiers, and obedient assembly line employees.

Ideas rarely made their way to the top.
Outside of the box thinking was silenced by the lower layers of leadership, or pushed to the top as their own. Low level employees were rarely rewarded for new ideas, because change was something that didn’t happen very quickly anywhere.

Enter the 21st century.

Knowledge is power.  Change is rapid.  Big business is complex.  CEO’s have a harder time knowing enough to effectively call the shots.  Rapid innovation is necessary.  Content is king.  Strategic partnerships and cross functional employees who belong to many small sub functional groups make organization difficult.

The knowledge workers are often not the compliant ones in the organization.  Management and leadership are no longer the same.  The role of the alpha-male (fine, alpha-person) is in question.

Leading does not necessarily mean authority.
When a group forms, and one or more people lead that group, it doesn’t give them automatic authority over the rest of the group. There’s times when the person with the authority is participating in the group, but not leading.

Leadership is based on teams.
Yes, there will always exist some form of pecking order.  But the best employees of the 21st century want equality. Great employees will want this equality, and where it doesn’t exist, little leadership will be found.  Empowerment of each and every person from the front line to the back office is necessary for a super charged 21st century business.

Leaders Teach.
Great leaders are never scared of the unknown.  They have a thirst for knowledge.  But even more important, they have a deep hunger for teaching.  Sharing the wealth of knowledge is important in the 21st century.  The best leaders are those who have learned how to learn, and then are good at sharing that newly acquired knowledge.  This is a daily exercise for these new leaders. 

Since everyone needs to lead, leaders need to be humble.
This may be one of the hardest things to understand.  In the 21st century, there is no room for egos that tear down groups around them. This is hard to hear for many currently in “authority”.  Although some leaders will end up having more responsibility in their respective groups, everyone is a contributor.  The best leaders listen to their groups, teach their groups, and empower their groups, developing leadership qualities as they progress.  There is no room for the attitude of “without me, none of this is possible“.

We need to challenge the traditions we value and change our culture.

We need to follow the leaders, learn from the leaders, and start leading others to continue the leading cycle.

This post was inspired by #usguys #usblogs week two theme – “The Twenty-First Century Leader”, and #BloggerLove contest celebrating American Heart Month and the title was taken from Heidi Cohen‘s 125 free blog topics

Special thanks to Ted Coine who taught me I’m not alone in my passion and thoughts.

Photo Credit

And the weekly Roundup of themed posts:

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  • http://twitter.com/SMBossLady Bev

    Absolutely on the mark!

    • Anonymous

      Thanks bev!

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  • Anonymous

    Hi Jonathan,

    An interesting exploration of leadership past vs. the evolving present; i would submit though that leadership has been evolving over the course of human history, but that some key attributes are strongly rooted in human nature.

    The problem I have witnessed and have seen expanding in many areas is that this evolution is leading to entitlement. Entitlement is killing North American culture; nothing is earned anymore. Leadership is earned by doing.

    Further, leadership is natural occurring as is the desire to follow for the vast majority of people based on what emotional fulfillment (both positive and negative) that leader imparts to those that follow.

    There is nothing wrong with traditional leadership as long as its enlightened and doesn’t abuse or demean those who follow. The military is built on this principle and it works very, very well.

    What this has also shown is that no just anyone has the qualities to lead, nor should they. Unfortunately, most people are unaware of their own competencies and, more importantly, their incompetence. Apply that to a “group leadership” dynamic and you have a hot mess of conflict, drama and often little accomplished. Remember, a camel is a horse built by committee.

    Lastly, I have some trepidation for where this evolution will lead. Don’t underestimate how people can change once they taste the “power” of leadership. even in an equal setting. Human nature hasn’t evolved, the rules that govern our interactions and hold us accountable have.

    Thanks for making me think. Great post.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the insightful comments, Jeff. Although one post cannot fully explore leadership, how it must change, and how it is changing, I hope I sparked enough emotion to get everyone thinking. I believe we need to explore this subject more and how it relates to how we educate the new leaders we are hoping to make.

  • Anonymous

    Jonathan, I’m not quite sure where you’re getting you “Leadership used to be” information from. Great leaders have existed in companies going back centuries. The successful 21st century leader is gonna be a lot like the 20th century leader because it works, has worked, and will continue to work long after social media has become “common”.

    Don’t get all caught up in what a handful of social media “enthusiasts” are preaching online about new leadership (a large percentage of whom never worked a day in their life in a corporate environment – so WTF do they really know?). And don’t think that people have suddenly wised up because of social media. If anything, we’re so bombarded by worthless information and banal blog posts that we’re starting to believe all the nonsense (as evidenced by your post here). The same people that talk about empowerment and new leadership would jump through a flaming hoop naked if Chris Brogan asked them to.

    Get out into your real-world community, meet the leaders in your backyard and stop believing all the hype…

    • Anonymous

      Dan, there’s no denying there have been great leaders in the past.
      I also half agree with your naked flaming hoop theory ;)

      However, don’t think social media has anything to do with what I wrote. A little background about me:
      I use to run a fairly successful web hosting and development company with 15 employees. We practiced a programming methodology called “extreme programming”, an agile development process. This methodology had a lot of influence on how we ran the business, and how we treated our empmloyees. Much of what I wrote here were things we believed in about our people. We had very smart people and all of them were leaders.

      Fast forward a bit, and I’ve worked with companies that had employees all the way up to hundreds and thousands of employees, so I have seen all different aspects of leadership under different sized employment groups.

      I honestly don’t believe this is hype. I believe we will need exponentially more leaders in this next hundred years, and I was trying to point out the qualities from those people that we will need. I’m sorry that I missed that mark for you when you read it.

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  • http://twitter.com/Almost60Really Paula Lee Bright

    I like your fresh thinking! And for me, being a teacher, your chosen picture really reflected what you were saying beautifully.

    I’m not a businessperson, but have worked in many businesses prior to teaching. I think that you have an excellent perspective on “how things were” and what you think about it.

    I can recall dozens of times when one of us lower in the ranks had a great idea, and couldn’t really break through the walls to get anybody to hear it. Usually we ended up leaving and taking those ideas elsewhere. It will be great if that doesn’t have to happen as often.

    There have always been leaders willing to listen. I just didn’t know many! So I absolutely understand your point. Thanks!

    • Anonymous

      Thanks, Paula! I think another great point for everyone to think about is that the 21st Century just started, right? When we talk about new types of leadership we are trying to examine our current and past states, and predict what leadership will look like in the next 20-80 years.

      I’m glad you like the picture, too. Sometimes I spend more time finding a picture or taking a picture for my posts, than I do writing them :)

  • http://toddrjordan.com/thebroadbrush tojosan

    Interesting perspective comparing old to new situations as we move into the future. So true about CEOs not having access or even the ability to absorb al they need to run a company. Today’s leaders need to be willing to not be in charge but showing the way, taking the hits, and rallying the troops.

    Your post is another good call to action for leaders to stand up and get moving.

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