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Posted on Harvard Business Review: April 29, 2010 2:30 PM
Walk into any organization and ask people to name a leader and the most frequent response will be the name of the CEO. This conflation of "leader" with "person at the top of the hierarchy has been reinforced by legions of academics with access to samples of people holding supervisory positions and claiming to be studying leadership. Estimates suggest that 84% of leadership research between 2003 and 2008 equated leaders with formal supervisors.
It is true that people holding positions of authority in organizations can be leaders, and it is certainly true that individuals holding such positions often have more freedom and autonomy to take leader-like actions. Yet, most of us have seen people in such positions who are decidedly not leaders. And we have likely all seen extraordinary acts of leadership from people who do not occupy supervisory positions. Bob Quinn argues persuasively that leadership is a state that individuals, in positions of authority or not, might enter and exit at various times in their work lives.
When we relax the common presumption that leadership is reserved for those with lofty job titles, our conceptualization shifts from saying, "she is a leader" to examining how, "she is leader like or a leader" in a particular situation. This opens up all sorts of new questions and avenues of research. Two examples:
First, if anyone can lead from any level in an organization, then just how does leadership get established in a workgroup or collective setting? How does leadership become what scholars call a "social fact," such that there are identifiable leaders and followers? In one sense, this occurs through a social process in which some people actively claim the identity of leader through their words and actions, and others, similarly, grant it to them. Watch any group of new MBA students tackling a group project, for example, and you will see much claiming of a leader identity and some (though less) granting of that identity as well. Some quite happily forego the often positive rewards associated with the identity of leader in most organizations to avoid the risks they see as associated with leading. Understanding how individuals actively negotiate both leader and follower identities and how those identities change over time and across situations is important.
Second, if anyone can lead from anywhere, there may be multiple people trying to lead at the same time. Some individuals believe, often unconsciously, that there can only be one leader in the group, and hold a pretty tight set of assumptions about what attributes that leader possesses. But others believe—as we do—that leadership can be shared and enacted by multiple people simultaneously. In companies, depending on how those assumptions play out, there will either be a competitive marketplace for leadership, or a more dynamic shifting of leader and follower identities over time as members both lead and follow in the accomplishment of group goals.
As these two examples remind us, we are often prisoners of our original conceptions (in this case, of leadership). It would not occur to us to study either of the above questions if we simply thought of leaders as people in positions of authority. And yet, as organizations engage in more complex, dynamic, and creative work, they have to rely more and more on leadership from all levels. New questions about leaders and leadership examining the social processes by which people at any level get constructed as "leaders" and the social dynamics of shared leadership as it unfolds in collective settings are essential to understanding the realities of leadership in contemporary organizations. There will come a time when the "organizational man" perspective is insufficient. And that time is now.
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