via Caesura Letters
By James Shelley
This is one of my favourite napkin doodles:
I draw a circle to represent “a goal”.
Another circle to represent “the people”.
An arrow pointing from the “people circle” to the “goal circle”.
The question: what is leadership?
What does it mean to move people — the rather finicky creatures that we are — to actually do something together?
Push. It seems that some leaders get behind the people circle and push it towards the goal. Well, they call it “encourage,” actually. Nelson Mandela said, “It is wise to persuade people to do things and make them think it was their own idea.” (Stengel, 2008) Classic push-leaders often find second careers as motivational speakers: “Yes, you can do it!” is their primary message.
Pull. Some leaders get in front of the people circle and pull everyone along, in a way that conjures up the stereotypical image of an alpha personality, akin to the image of a face-painted William Wallace persona leading the charge. In less euphoric times these are the leaders who, in the words of John Naisbitt, settle for “finding a parade and getting ahead of it.” (Naisbitt, 1982) When they are actually sitting still they are busy fine-tuning endless drafts of vision, purpose, objective, and mission statements.
Insiders. Some leaders like to dive into the people circle and lead from within. Disciples of Dale Carnegie and John Maxwell come quickly to mind. These are the people who are out to save corporate America one coffee appointment and “checking in on you” email at a time. Of course, we all love these kinds of leaders—and we know full well that these leaders love for us to love them too.
If I am the crunched up end of a coffee stir stick, bouncing around the metaphorical napkin of leadership, I find myself most in sync with my convictions when I just ignore the people circle altogether and move myself toward “the goal” circle. Trying to manipulate and alter people’s thinking (not to mention their habits) is hard work, in fact it is a never-ending pipe-dream into which one can easily flush many years.
Ironically, most of the leaders who we revere as our idols did not invest their lives into trying to subvert the conscious landscape of the people circle. No, the greatest leaders in history seem to have just gone after the goal because they believed in it. The following hypothesis lands outside of the realm of provability, but perhaps it carries anecdotal truth nonetheless: humans seem almost lustful to follow an individual with an audacious, personal commitment to practical action.
We instinctively want to trust leaders who are really going to “make it happen” — so it seems logical that there is no leader more enticing than the one who is already doing it. We know that the leader who cares the most is the leader who will die for the goal, even if no one else is following. Yet, these are the people who become the magnetic centres of movement, change, and accomplishment.
The adage is as old as the hills: if no one follows you, you are not really a leader. The problem is that most people who call themselves leaders do not really know if anyone is following them. They are too busy trying to create alignment — something about getting the right people on the right seats on the right bus. You can invest so much energy into managing, motivating, and manipulating the people circle in the name of “leadership” that the actual task itself is forgotten in the pile of self-help books.
“Leadership” has become more of a psycho-persuasion exercise than doing an action that other people repeat, mimic and respond to in turn.
Doers. As an alternative to general push, pull, and insider models of leadership, I want to suggest a third idea: go and do it and see who follows you. To really test your leadership capacity, quit trying to lead people and actually try doing “the thing” you want others to do. If people come along then you have followers — then and only then are you truly a leader.
The first concern of the leader is the goal circle, not the people circle. Yes, you should care deeply and genuinely for your followers — caring for those around you is indispensable — but don’t confuse your “followers” with people who you are merely trying to coerce into doing something that they would never find you yourself doing.
Leadership, as a methodology, sells a lot of books.
Leadership, as a job title, is an institutional invention.
Leadership, as a discipline, is the pathway to dogmatism.
Leadership, as an ideal, is the instigator of disillusionment.
Leadership, as a status symbol, breeds resentment.
Leadership, in a reality, will simply change your neighbourhood.