Forget About Leadership, This Is What We Need More Of

As I was thinking about to write about today, I came across two articles about leadership. One article, by Margarita Mayo, If Humble People Make the Best Leaders, Why Do We Fall for Charismatic Narcissists?, looks at why humble people make the best leaders, but we often fall for the charisma of a narcissistic leader instead.

According to Mayo, “humble leaders improve the performance of a company in the long run because they create more collaborative environments. They have a balanced view of themselves – both their virtues and shortcomings – and a strong appreciation of others’ strengths and contributions, while being open to new ideas and feedback. These “unsung heroes” help their believers to build their self-esteem, go beyond their expectations, and create a community that channels individual efforts into an organized group that works for the good of the collective.” She also notes that one can be both humble and charismatic, what she refers to as socialized charisma. Although the socialized charismatic leader has the aura of a hero, it is counteracted with low authoritarianism and a genuine interest in the collective welfare.

The second article, by a trio of McKinsey consultants, looked at “What makes a CEO ‘exceptional’?“. In a study of the very top performers (top 5%) in a data set of roughly 600 CEOs at S&P 500 companies between 2004 and 2014, the authors share three lessons that emerged from close scrutiny of these exceptional leaders:

  • Exceptional CEOs are twice as likely to have been hired from outside the company
  • Exceptional CEOs were more likely to conduct a strategic review early in their tenure
  • Exceptional CEOs were less likely to undertake organizational redesign or management-team reshuffles in the first two years in office.

These are not the first articles I have read about leadership; I’ve probably read several dozen articles and a few books about the topic. There’s a lot written about leadership; when I type “leadership” into Google, it returns 797,000,000 results.

But as fate would have it, I was also scrolling through Adam Grant’s monthly newsletter, and he shared an article from the New York Times that offers a different look at leadership. “Not Leadership Material? Good. The World Needs Followers“, written by Susan Cain, author of the bestselling book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”.

Cain notes how many colleges stress the importance of leadership in their application materials, leading to throngs of high school students looking for leadership positions while in high school, simply for the point of having it on their resume. The glorification of “leadership skills” attracts those who are motivated by the spotlight rather than by the ideas and people they serve. It teaches students to be a leader for the sake of being in charge, rather than in the name of a cause or idea they care about deeply.

While some have concluded that what we need are more followers, a term coined by Robert Kelley, a professor of management and organizational behavior. Kelley defined the term in a 1988 Harvard Business Review article, in which he listed the qualities of a good follower, including being committed to “a purpose, principle or person outside themselves” and being “courageous, honest and credible. While the study of followership has grown in popularity, it is nowhere near as popular as leadership. A Google search of followership returned 823,000 results.

I’m not sure that’s the right term, or the right type of individual, for what we need most to make the world a better place.

If I were to give a name to the type of person we need, it would be “doer”.

As one Ivy League professor points out, it would be nice if admissions officers looked for those wishing to make advances in solving mathematical problems or being the best poet of the century.

Cain tells the story of a high school senior who was kicked out of a leadership program because she wasn’t outgoing enough. This set her free to discover her true calling, science. She started working after school with her genetics teacher, another behind-the-scenes soul. She published her first scientific paper when she was 18, and won the highest scholarship her university has to offer, majoring in biomedical engineering and cello.

Cain notes that we need the soloists who forge their own paths in the worlds of art and science; such people are neither leaders not followers. but they certainly make the world a better place.

She concludes by saying that if we seek a society of caring, creative and committed people, and leaders who feel called to service rather than to stature, then we need to do a better job of making that clear.

So maybe what we need is a new field of research – doership. You heard it here first.

Published by

Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *