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Toward a New Model of Leadership

Provoking personal leadership may help combat serious social problems.

Key points

  • Leadership styles that promote obedience will be ineffective when critical reflection and collective responsibility are necessary.
  • People with goals of following leaders can encounter difficulties in situations when there is more than one option about which leader to follow.
  • Social groups function best when their members help each other as much as possible and obstruct each other as little as possible.
  • To deal effectively with calamities and chaos a fluid leadership model could be helpful in which everyone has the opportunity to lead.

Recent global events have demonstrated the value of strong and decisive leadership. Unfortunately, these same events have also highlighted the flaws in the social arrangement of one leader and many followers in which faithful obedience is the glue that is used to hold the arrangement in place. The fragility of population obedience when it is not based on a foundation of considered collective responsibility can be quickly exposed during widespread calamities and unrest.

Current leadership models are implicitly based on a concept of an individual leader and one or more followers. Various leadership courses and training programs abound yet the same kind of training does not exist for followers. While we perhaps might not like to admit it, there is a somewhat pejorative view of being a follower. As essential as followers are in the current paradigm, it is difficult to imagine anyone aspiring to be a follower. Yet the exhortations to develop leadership skills and abilities seem endless. For models such as these to “work” and be sustained it is necessary that leaders develop goals about what is good or desirable for the group and followers develop goals about, above all, obeying the leader.

Leaders are out in front and are admired. Followers, at least the good ones, do what they can to stay close behind. The conventional way of structuring these kinds of social relationships is ultimately problematic in terms of the sustained thriving of a community or society. The current COVID-19 global pandemic has brought the problem into sharp focus. When people have goals to follow leaders, this can result in an abrogation of personal responsibility as well as a lack of critical reflection. We have seen, for example, once vaccination programs started to roll out, people became more relaxed about social distancing, mask-wearing, and other important measures. It is easy to become complacent if the habit one has developed is simply waiting to follow a leader’s instructions. Vaccine hesitancy has also arisen as a serious impediment to overcoming the pandemic. The emergence of vaccine hesitancy appears to be largely generated by people placing undue emphasis on misleading or inaccurate information coupled with a lack of sufficient skills to impartially assess the claims that are made. In times such as these, it can be difficult to know which leader to follow.

Our current global calamity has highlighted the need for a more fluid understanding of leadership. Perhaps the distinction between leaders and followers is a false dichotomy. Maybe there are different ways of thinking about group roles and dynamics. Surely any group will be successful when its members are able to achieve their own goals without preventing others from doing the same. That is, in high-functioning groups, group members most of the time, help others as much as possible and obstruct others as little as possible.

 125496316, @123RF
Source: pellinni, Image ID: 125496316, @123RF

“Out in front” is just a particular point of view. Even when people are out in front there is never nothing before them. The most courageous and bold of trail-blazers still have uncharted territory stretching out in front of them. So, from a different perspective, leaders who are “out in front” are simply in between the place where the “followers” are and the somewhere else of a new destination. From this point of view, leaders could be thought of as the conduit or catalyst that enables the transition from here to there.

The place where the followers are represents the current situation. Perhaps the status quo. A leader is someone who has taken a step or two ahead to see what might become a new “now.” The direction, however, must be jointly determined if it is ever to be reached successfully with no one left behind. “As fast as our last” could be a useful mantra. Groups are comprised of individuals and every individual has their own personalized life journey to navigate. All people have their own goals. Goals cannot be imposed on others, and they can’t even really be “shared” except in a metaphorical sense. Fostering a culture in which we are all encouraged to be leaders of our own life journey could lead to greater civic responsibility and community engagement and contribution.

People who are skilled at catalyzing groups to transition to a better place find ways for even the quietest, meekest, and slowest of the group to make a genuine contribution. In any group, there can be expected to be people who don’t want to make a contribution. They have different goals. An artful transitioner can learn even from these apparent nonparticipants for the benefit of the group. Enticing and provoking the leader within us all to step into the throng can only lead to a more productive and harmonious group. People with individualistic goals often have important goals about freedom and autonomy. Ironically, in a social group, people experience the most freedom when they help others to experience freedom as well.

The idea of a leader then can be reimagined as someone, anyone, who is a resource in a group helping productive change happen. From this perspective, we can all be leaders.

Thinking about leaders as individuals embedded within groups invites the opportunity to consider the importance of social connectedness for effective leadership as well as a more dynamic approach to leadership in which all members of a group can be encouraged to think of themselves as leaders depending on the particular task and context at any point in time. Beginning with an unwavering position of self-leadership, we can envisage an ebb and flow model of group leadership. Such a model will enable a more cohesive and also more adventurous collection of individuals who can lift their eyes to distant horizons knowing that they will support and be supported by each other with each new footprint they leave on whatever uncharted territory they have the courage to step into.

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