Elephant Leadership: Showing the Way for Others

Our efforts to define leadership are like the proverbial blind men trying to understand an elephant by merely feeling its trunk. Our grasp of leadership is just as narrowly limited to what it means to occupy an executive role or be in charge of a group.

If we gain a fuller understanding of elephants by standing back to look at the whole beast, what do we see when we take a broader view of leadership?

The Anomaly of Leading by Example

Companies and sports teams lead by example. So did Jack Welch and GE with novel ideas such as workout and the requirement to be number one or two in a market. When businesses around the globe followed suit, GE was leading by example.

Japanese business showed leadership by example to Western businesses in the 1980's through their quality circle concept. When a country adopts the green practices initiated by another country, the latter has shown leadership by example.

Within organizations, leading by example is much more pervasive than is realized, given how rarely we talk about it. The clichê "actions speak louder than words" proves that we follow the example people set regardless of what they advocate.

A New Definition of Leadership

Leadership can be defined in general terms as simply showing the way for others. This includes leading by example both within and across organizations. Showing the way for others also occurs through explicit advocacy of a new direction.

A general definition of leadership shows that being in charge is only a special case of leadership, an application or part, not the whole elephant. The crucial implication of leadership shown across groups or by outsiders is that it is not a role. Thus it must be a discrete act.

When a company in Asia decides to follow Jack Welch's lead by supporting only those divisions that are number one or two in their markets, this is an event, a discrete act of following an equally one-off act of leading. Jack Welch is not in a leadership role, even informally, with respect to this follower.

By reframing leadership as a discrete act of influence, it becomes clear that even people in executive roles only show leadership occasionally. They are not leaders by virtue of being effective in their roles. There is nothing strange about this shift in perspective. Other forms of influence, such as selling, also occur as discrete, role-independent acts. Sales people are only selling when persuading customers to buy.

Dispersed Leadership

Showing the way for others is leadership truly dispersed because it does not require being in charge of anyone even informally. A new direction can be promoted with implementation left to those who buy the idea.

Equally critically, if leadership in general merely means showing the way for others, then we need to completely recast what anyone in a leadership role is doing when not actively showing leadership. A broader concept of leadership gives us the key to finally and clearly differentiating leadership from management.

To make this shift, however, we need to upgrade management to be a facilitative, supportive, developmental and coaching function, thus ridding it of its current negative image as a mechanical controlling force in organizations.

Why It Matters

The status quo is determined to maintain the myth that only people in charge can show leadership even if it means taking the desperate measure of moving the goal posts, abandoning the core meaning of providing direction and shifting leadership to facilitative mode. The latter is an effective way to operate but it needs to be seen for what it is: a good management technique.

The status quo, however, is getting in the way of full employee engagement. In a war of ideas, businesses urgently need all the ideas they can get for new directions. As long as leadership is conceived as a top down force, then employees are relegated to being passengers on the bus.

But when leadership is divorced from position, then any employee with a better idea can show leadership by promoting it sideways to colleagues and upwards to management. By showing leadership employees can achieve a much higher level of engagement. They achieve a greater stake in the enterprise by taking more ownership for its direction, even if only at the level of their own teams.

Our Elephant Trunk Fixation

If it's so easy to step back and view the whole elephant, why do we remain fixated on its trunk? It says more about us than about the meaning of leadership. We have such an obsessive need for heroes to inspire and take care of us that we are blind to any form of leadership not shown by people in charge. But until we see how disempowering this fixation is, we won't reap the full benefits of what leadership can offer us. Businesses that fail to take advantage of the leadership potential in all employees risk going the way of the mastodons.