The Leader Who Had No Title

Cover of "The Leader Who Had No Title: A ...

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Since I wrote Leadership From Below in 2008, there has been a steady flow of management books about bottom-up leadership. In The Leader Who Had No Title (2010), speaker Robin Sharma has put together a modern fable on success in business and in life. There are no revolutionary insights in this book, but its speaks to the frustrated, overworked American, which seems to be in the majority. Sharma also avoids being too patronizing. Instead of the traditional format he chooses a narrative form, which incidentally, means that instead of offering any kind of evidence, we are asked to trust the experience of the author indirectly.

We follow Blake, an uninspired worker who is presented with the chance to meet four somewhat unlikely leadership teachers in one day, a maid who is deeply passionate about her job, a surfer and skier who says to lean in on the steep slopes, seek out and face danger head on,  a former CEO now passionate about gardening who explains that business is all about relationships, and a shoe shiner who says you need to be a great person to be a great leader. All are lessons that ring true in the postmodern leadership scene where results only come if you balance your pursuits so that life and work mesh together.

The message might still be a bit radical for most people, although those who have thought about life and death more than once might agree at times:

All those things we believed were so important, things like titles, net worth and social position turn out to be so very unimportant.

As I predicted several years ago, it seems like the Zen of everyday life is becoming key to the western man and woman’s quest to reinvent reality.

But does that mean that hierarchies are going away? Or, does it mean that making a contribution as a team leader, a manager, a VP or a CEO does not matter anymore? Far from it, in my opinion.  The Forbes book reviewer and himself a leadership expert, SangeethVarghese, has it wrong, though, in dismissing the book in Everyone must be a leader. So What?:

Sharma seems to confuse leadership with mere exemplary work. He depicts leadership as a matter not of heading a team or directing change but simply of focusing on excellence in the work you do.

Rather, leadership from below, which is more an attitude to life regardless of your various roles, becomes important even as hierarchies matter. So, both Sangeeth and Robin are right: whatever you do, only take the lead if you mean it.

Toddlers become Leaders

A PlantSim toddler.

Image via Wikipedia

There is a growing trend to use toddlers as a model for positive (and negative) leadership traits.  This is not lost on FT’s Lucy Kellaway who in the FT Business Life On Work column on 13 September 2010 describes Nicholas Brann’s theory of leadership:

● Toddlers are full of energy and enthusiasm. You can’t beat a toddler who is really into something and going for it 100 per cent.

● Toddlers are natural risk-takers. They throw themselves into climbing down the banisters in the boldest, bravest fashion.

● Toddlers are persistent. When told not to smear jam on a DVD, they will wait a couple of minutes and then do it again.

● Toddlers are inquisitive. They will not be fobbed off with a stock reply but go on asking “why? why? why?”

● Toddlers are creative. Their felt-tip drawings on walls and sofas betray the liveliest imagination.

● Toddlers have great interpersonal skills. They are good at thawing the hardest heart with hugs and sloppy kisses.

Leadership from below takes some getting used to.  Toddler leaders can be exhausting, demanding, and unreasonable. But they are effective. The interesting thing to start paying more attention to, is what happens in a group of toddlers. Think a toddler birthday party. There will be plenty material for new theories, books, and challenges to the initial theorem.

Bottom-up lessons from European CEO magazine

President George W. Bush, left center, joins f...

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European CEO magazine is currently running a story called: What’s missing from this picture? Oliver Mack, head of learning at Common Purpose writes:

“MBAs…left managers in a bubble…eventually we all need to step outside of our team or department where our position makes us the boss”.

The reason is that the problems we need to solve typically take place outside of our formal sphere of influence.  Mack continues to argue for education based on challenging leaders in “real life situations that shake them up” rather than relying on tutorials, leadership models, and Powerpoints from MBA professors.

Despite the obvious need to somehow involve professors, one could wonder what puts MBA programmes at such a disadvantage in terms of providing case study experience.   Also, Mack’s alternative to an MBA is a two day workshop, hardly a substitute, I would say.   However, Mack is essentially spot on: leadership from below is a significant source of power in the network society and knowledge handled top down won’t cut it.

So how can we all learn more self awareness?  Based on recent experience, I suggest keeping a job, having kids, remaining happily married, and living to tell the tale.   None of those situations really involve top down authority of any sort.  Only that there are very few hours to sleep should you choose to pursue that multi-tasking approach.  I would gladly take an MBA instead, if I thought it would help.  Mack’s two day workshop seems to be an easy way out, even if he will shake me up.

Cultivating Leadership

ASCII to Binary encoding of the word "Wik...

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– The leadership I want to explore here has nothing to do with position or authority; it is about influence and responsibility, it’s about leadership from below or from within, writes Patrick Bridgeman, in a new article on Cultivating Leadership in this Fall’s Positive Life.  Bridgeman is Editor of Positive Life, an Irish publication which aim to deliver uplifting, informative articles and information designed to enhance the quality of readers’ lives.  He continues:

I want to equate leadership not with being in charge but rather with the ability to inspire initiative and new thinking in those around us. At the core of this approach is the capacity to navigate new paths, build teams and broker between different points of view…

Sounds good to me! Although, I would not say that there is a contradiction between being in charge and being perceived to be in charge, nor between inspiring and actually being responsible for inspiring others.

The important thing is to maintain one’s grounding and facilitate other people’s growth, whilst still being able to focus your activity on the targets you have set for yourself and others.

So, what we need is a fusion between position based and place based authority, which is very different from believing the world is now unleashing an unbound process of wiki leadership as advocated by MacroWikinomics.  More about that later.

Leading the EU from Below

Finally, some praise for the EU’s choice of President and Foreign Minister of the EU.  The New York Times article on The EU’s New Leaders acknowledges that the choice of a Haiku-writing Belgian Prime Minister and a British baroness and EU Trade Commissioner was smart.

Why so smart? Well, because governance of a network cannot be based on pure hierarchical principles. For starters, because there is no clear hierarchy. Everything is alliances, soft power, give and take, symbolic gestures and horse trading.  Secondly, because hierarchy is not wanted. The EU is composed of 27 Member States each with their own idea of leadership. What they want is a negotiator, someone who can make the most of a near impossible situation.

Needless to say, this does not mean that top-down power will not be involved. The wonderfully strange thing about even such a surprising appointment is that it becomes power. In that sense, leadership from below is a very precarious state of affairs. It seldom happens, or rather, it happens quite often, but once it is recognized as such, it ceases to exist. Plain old leadership takes over. The disciple becomes the leader.

Another thing is that to Belgians, of course, the notion of their Prime Minister being an unknown figure is hard to fathom. This is another very interesting facet of leadership. It can actually be very local. Nobody is felt as more powerful than a tribal leader in a small community. Yet, his or her power seldom extends beyond a few hundred people and beyond a small physical territory. But to the locals, this does not matter.

The challenge with the EU has always been that its actions are slow to seep down to individuals. Even though the European policy debates are much more consequential than national policy debates, they are less talked about. The sociology of the whole thing is relatively straight forward. Whatever people think is real becomes real in its consequences. People refuse to believe that an organizational structure they do not understand and politicians and bureaucrats they do not know can have any power at all over themselves. However, if you have seen someone on TV, shaken their hand in a parade, and they talk about your top ten concerns (taxes, the economy, social benefits, safety, culture etc.), then you believe they really can affect change. Little do we consider the fact that politicians may well talk of things they cannot really deliver…

So, in a situation where the national scene is where heroes and villains are created, there is little scope for big Europe. And maybe that is the price we have to pay for real progress on policy issues.

The next few years will show whether this strategy works. I, for one, think that there is much to gain by testing the waters of networked leadership. The EU is the best example we have. The laboratory is a bunch of very much alive Europeans who are slowly recovering from a financial crisis. So, the stakes are high, but the results could be good, if not great. Not bad at all.

Norway Teaches The World Economics

Today’s New York Times article, Thriving Norway Provides an Economics Lesson, illustrates some aspects of the Scandinavian frugality, realism, common sense, welfare thinking, and, well, dare I say virtue, that characterize leadership from below. While there are a lot of issues to be had with the conditions for taking risks, funding, and exhibiting entrepreneurship in such a context, it does avoid the excesses that the rest of the world now is struggling with.

The global financial crisis has brought low the economies of just about every country on earth. But not Norway.

For now…

Good Morning Connecticut TV Interview

TV interview with Trond Arne Undheim on WTNH (Channel 8, New Haven, CT, USA) on Leadership From Below. The hardback is available on Amazon.com and the paperback is available on Lulu.com).

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