Why do we need leaders?

Photo By dbking

About ten days ago editors of the HBR.org blog made an interesting comment about the media coverage of what was happening in Egypt in a post called: “Do we need leaders”. The media was thoroughly discussing the fact that there seemed to be no leader to the movement attempting to overthrow the government in Egypt and the editors commented:

We’ve been fascinated by how assiduously various forces, for various reasons, have been trying to anoint a leader on a movement that has been aggressive about not having one. Whether it’s Mohamed ElBaradei, someone from the Muslim Brotherhood, Google’s Wael Ghonim, or someone else, it seems hard for many in the media to grasp the idea of a movement without a recognizable, charismatic figure … in front of it.

But it’s not just the media (and let’s not forget that “media” is a plural word) scouring Tahrir Square for someone to take charge. We want someone to be in charge. There is, after all, plenty of evidence that leaderless organizations can dissolve into chaos just as easily as those run by dictators…

Organizations as diverse as Ushahidi and file-sharing sites show how plenty can be accomplished without an explicitly hierarchical structure.

This comment made me think about a concept called “the myth of leadership”. This concept is described in an 2005 Organizational Dynamics Journal article by Craig Pearce and Charles Manz called: “The New Silver Bullets of Leadership: The Importance of Self- and Shared Leadership in Knowledge Work”.

The myth of heroic leadership – Pearce and Manz claim – is that the source of all wisdom is to be found in the designated leader. The obvious type of leader fitting this description is the ‘‘Strong Man’’ leader or the ‘‘Directive’’ leader. In this type of leadership direction, command and control are used to obtain compliance, often based on fear and intimidation from followers.

Pearce and Manz also claim that most other forms of leadership, such as transactional leadership – founded on the leader offering rewards and incentives in exchange for follower compliance – emphasize a one-way influence process of leaders over followers. The ideas of strong top-down control emanated according to Pearce and Manz from the industrial revolution, through the needs of railroads industry in the 19th century and continued with the rise of the “scientific management” in the beginning of the 20th century. They claim that these ideas continued throughout the 20th century and largely remain to this day.

As HBR.org editors comment, even though many organizations to date have shown how plenty can be accomplished without an explicitly hierarchical structure, still “We want someone to be in charge”. Why is that? Why do we have this bias for leadership?

Think about how ingrained this myth is in our culture. If I take part of my culture, Judaism, the idea of some external force that will come and save us all is an important part of the faith. The twelfth principle in the 13 Principles of Faith formulated by Maimonides says: “I believe with full faith in the coming of the Messiah. And even though he tarries, with all that, I await his arrival with every day”. The Messiah, in Jewish eschatology, is a term that came to refer to a future Jewish King from the Davidic line, who will be “anointed” with holy anointing oil and rule the Jewish people during the Messianic Age – a future time of universal peace and brotherhood on the earth, without crime, war and poverty. We are waiting for him to come. To come and save us.

These kinds of ideas are ingrained in other faiths and cultures as well. And I think it is embedded in our own thinking – we have a bias towards the need of a forceful – somehow holy and external – leader who will show us what needs to be done and take us to a better place.

Pearce and Manz argue that these myths about the importance of the single leader stand in contrast to the needs of many modern organizations. In contemporary knowledge-based, dynamic and complex team environments, both the cognitive and the behavioral capabilities of the wider workforce are needed to achieve optimal effectiveness and competitiveness. While some may be drawn to the idea of a larger-than-life, charismatic, all-knowing leader who can inspire and single-handedly positively transform work systems and the employees who work in them, the realities and challenges of contemporary organizational life require an alternative view of leadership.

This myth is relevant to as both as leaders and as followers. Are we waiting to be led or do we stand out and take the initiative? More importantly, when we are put in the position of a leader – do we act like we are The Messiah holding all the answers and put here on earth to show to dumb followers how it should be done? Or do we treat the power given to us as an opportunity to connect, share, enable, amplify and collaborate with the people around us because the true power lies in diversity?

Are you biased towards leadership? What are you going to do about it?