Is Leadership overrated?

Leadership is a big deal in the modern world. We don’t want people to be managers these days, we need them to be leaders. Almost every management qualification has an assignment question about the difference between leadership and management, and social media is awash with motivational quotes from people classed as leaders, while the people who used to be called management gurus are now referred to, in Orwellian terms, as “thought leaders”.

But what is “leadership”? And do we really need it? It often seems a bit of a Humpty Dumpty word, in that it can mean what we choose it to mean. The people we tend to define as leaders fall into different categories depending on our mood: entrepreneurs with a flair for self-publicity (Richard Branson, Steve Jobs), good crisis managers (Churchill), single-minded autocrats (Thatcher/Blair) or simply those with positional power (the CEOs of major corporations who regularly appear in the media as “business leaders”).

I have two problems with this current obsession with “leadership”. Firstly it inevitably tends to a cult of personality – Kim Jong Un may be an extreme example but there are many who will slavishly follow the latest musings of a particular writer, businessman, politician or “guru”. It must be a horrible job being a leader in such circumstances, where – like Peter Sellers’ character in Being There – every slight comment is treated as a pearl of wisdom and you spend your life surrounded by flatterers, toadies and hangers-on.

Secondly, the implication is that if you’re not a leader you must be one of the led. A mere drone, unable to think, waiting for your instructions to come down on tablets of stone. And since leaders are apparently born not made, your fate is determined at the moment of birth.

Wait! I hear you say. A “good” leader is one who inspires people to better things, and helps create a sense of purpose. They aren’t all dictators. But inspiration lies within individuals, it can’t be externally imposed, and while the spark that releases it may come from a leader, it can just as easily come from another person, a book, a film, or a piece of music. And a sense of purpose is stronger if it comes from within the people in a team rather than being imposed from outside.

So maybe in 2015 we can drop the obsession with leadership. Facilitation, co-ordination,collaboration and teamwork may not be as glamorous or “sexy” as leadership but they’re far more effective.

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