Is leadership only about leaders?

Had an interesting conversation with my friend @MaverickWoman about leadership over the weekend. Conversations with @MaverickWoman are always thought-starters and this was no different to usual – she got me thinking.

The big question I started thinking about was:

Is leadership only about leaders?

At business school there was so much focus on the leader. There was: servant leadership; charismatic leadership; transactional leadership; transformational leadership; blah blah blah …

We whiled away many hours with huge debates about the difference between management and leadership.

For me the difference came down to the fact that, while I wanted to follow a leader, I often had no choice in following a manager. Usually I was forced to follow a particular manager by the hierarchical nature of the organisation and my own desire to follow was irrelevant.

But much of what we studied did not really look at the followers. This seems to be a very important part of leadership. There are lots of people under medical treatment who think they are a leader (for example those poor souls who think they’re Napoleon or some other famous leader) but few of us would follow them. What makes them different from well known leaders like Napoleon and others?

I know we can look to more formalised theories about this like situational leadership or Leader-Member Exchange Theory, but I want to look at something simpler than that.

During our chat on the weekend I realised that unless you have a voluntary following, you are not a leader, but a manager.

Take the examples of Jesus & Gandhi – they were leaders because people chose to follow them, not because they set out to be leaders. And, most importantly, people chose to follow them because of what they said and did and were.

So my theory is that for leadership content counts. The content of your words and actions are what makes people want to follow you.  The content is what creates the desire to follow in your followers. And without them you’re not really leading anyone.

What’s interesting about this view of leadership is that anyone can be a leader.  It’s not just some special person who went to the right schools.  It’s someone who says and does things that make other people voluntarily choose to follow them.

But what about dictators and other people who rule by might or fear? Well from my perspective they’re just a bunch of managers.


5 thoughts on “Is leadership only about leaders?

  1. Interesting that you mention this… I am working on a project in the UK that is about shared leadership (in the NHS), which just means that all doctors need to be able to be leaders, and followers, to ensure success. We have developed a Medical Leadership Competency Framework that is being integrated into medical training and will hopefully make a big difference in the future!


  2. Ghandi was a charismatic walk on water on leader

    But he could not govern India

    Nehru was a charismatic leader – but less so than the walk on water Ghandi

    Nehru governed India (and established a dynasty)

    different roles

    sometimes the facilitative servant leader is not recognised as folks flock to walk on water leader who in fact cannot govern

    a truly leader is about creative sustainable futures – succession planning – otherwise all falls apart when leader departs and cult of the individual is very dangerous and seductive/potentially corrupting for walk on water charismatic leader


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