The Fallacy of Individual Leadership (Friday Quote)

To complete my impromptu CEO theme of this week, today's Humanize quote comes from Chapter 3, where we document the failures of modern management. Specifically, we take on 3 "best practices" in the management field: strategic planning, human resource management, and "leadership." This extended quote (pp. 55-57) is from the section on leadership.

The field of leadership seems much more concerned with the individual leader than the idea of leadership. The centuries-old debate about whether leaders are "born" or "made" attributes the essence of leadership to something inside an individual, regardless of whether it got there via nature or nurture. The business of leadership has been fueled by leadership training programs designed to give individuals the edge they need to become leaders. Leadership, in short, is about individual leaders.

This fits with our needs for best practices, of course, but it also reveals their flaws. As we stated previously, each valid point about leadership starts to break down when you think in real terms about how to implement the ideas. By focusing on leadership as an individual capacity, each school of thought fails to consider the context--the organization or community somehow being "led" by these individual leaders. Too much responsibility is placed on the leader, and too little on the organization and its owners. This leads to a separation of the leader from the organization that she was presumably appointed to lead. Her policies and decisions are evaluated based on the personal characteristics of creativity and courage, rather than on the more mundane standards of the organization, its purpose, and its operating circumstances.

...To move forward we need a different approach to leadership--one that understands individual competencies but does not revolve around them. We don't need new best practices, but we need a much better conversation about what leadership is and how we collectively make it happen. The rest of this book intends to advance that conversation, and we build on others who have started taking a different approach. Peter Senge, for example, defined leadership as "the capacity within the human community to shape its future." Think about it. leadership is a capacity within the system, not only a skill possessed by an individual."

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  1. 28.10.2013 at 11:14 pm

    Thanks for sharing this excerpt, Jamie! I like to think of the role of “leader” as actually that of facilitator; you are facilitating the best people in the best programs to best deliver on your mission. It isn’t very appealing to me to be a “leader” if it means operating all alone. Being a facilitator means I get to work with the community, staff, supporters and funders, everyone interested in our mission to reach it together.

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