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Leading or Punning

Just back from Academy of Management annual conference where I attended many sessions on “leadership� topics, I’ve concluded that leadership scholars (and many others) are engaged in a massive punning game. That is, the words leader and leadership are uttered ubiquitously and have multiple meanings, often ironic, yet very few people take time to consider the implications of the punning.

Most speakers at conference sessions did not directly divulge their own definitions of leader and leadership. Instead, those being punned at, had to sort out meanings for themselves.

Not surprisingly at a conference dominated by participants from business schools around the world, the most common meaning of leader was CEO, or possibly member of a firm’s senior management team. Some scholars extend this view to include the nonprofit and political realm – that is, leaders are not just CEOs but also executive directors and Presidents, or other people with visible and powerful positions.

These scholars – f rom what might be called the “top dog� school – tend to define leadership in one of two ways. It may be the sum of the people in top positions in a firm, nonprofit, or government agency – as in, “The leadership has issued a policy about employee benefits.� Alternatively, leadership may be more process or action-oriented – that is, leadership is about what these top people do. They set direction, make strategies, promulgate visions, drive change, and the like.

Another group of organizational scholars has a somewhat more expansive view: middle managers are also considered leaders of their units or divisions. In behavioral terms, they do some of the same things the top dogs do, but they answer to their “bosses,� while leading “subordinates.�

Another group of scholars, onetime renegades at an event like this conference, say, wait a minute, what if we consider the possibility that everyone in an organization may be the instigator of change? What if we see relationship building and teamwork as key aspects of leadership? Wouldn’t people who do this anywhere in the organization be exercising leadership, and if so, might we call them leaders?

What if we see organizations as systems and recognize that system dynamics may have more impact on outcomes of a top team’s new policy than anything the team actually does? Wouldn’t anyone in the organization have a chance to influence those dynamics in ways that prompted needed change? Everyone has heard the story of the low-level employee who came up with an idea that saved the organization millions or led the way to a valuable new product or service. Was this employee a leader?

Some scholars even entertain the paradoxical notion that an organization or system itself may function as a leader. Thus the University of Minnesota’s Regents have declared that the University will be a world leader in research. Amnesty International has clearly become a leader in the global human rights movement.

So what does this mean for evaluating leaders, for helping people become leaders? All meanings are flying around and have force, but the first two are incredibly limiting and disempowering. If we (as citizens, employees, and scholars) hold the “top dog� or “boss� view of leaders, we will spend too much time trying to identify the essence of what successful CEOs and bosses do, heap praise on those who turn their companies or their countries around, and how with outrage when they disappoint us and start talking about the “leader� with irony.

At the Humphrey Institute’s Public and Nonprofit Leadership Center, we are committed to preparing people to lead where they are. We agree with the argument that the world needs more rather than fewer leaders these days. Still, we recognize that positions in organizations and networks often add formal authority and power over resources that people outside those positions don’t have.

Maybe a helpful way of thinking is “big l� versus “little l� leadership, a phrase offered by one of my students. From this perspective, leadership educators help people lead within their sphere of influence, but also recognize that they will often be followers. They need the ability to move in and out of follower roles, but see themselves as always active in the leadership work. Some will be Leaders, but all may be leaders.

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