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Sunday, December 23, 2007

Traditional Leaders as Father Figures

We think of leadership in many different ways, which is why it is so confusing. At one level we talk about leading a tour. We follow tour guides when they "lead" us around an ancient monument. Similarly, we refer to "leading a discussion." Here, we are really talking about conducting rather than leading as we think of it in organizations.

A second popular concept is that of being the top person in a group, the individual who succeeds in getting to the top through force of personality or election. Being such a leader can mean having the ability to instill confidence that you will manage the group's affairs in a responsible manner, that you will be a good steward or caretaker.

A third way of defining leadership is to focus on showing the way, promoting new directions. Althoujgh we normally associate this concept of it with being in charge of the team, there is no necessary connection here. It is quite possible to lead in this sense without being in charge of followers. Market leading businesses and league leading sports teams lead their competitors without managing them. Martin Luther King had an impact on the U.S, government when the Supreme Court ruled segregation on buses unconstitutional thanks to his demonstrations and speeches. Clearly, King was not in charge of the Supreme Court. Finally, whenever a front-line knowledge worker promotes a new product or better process, leadership is shown to senior executives who are not managed by this employee.

Paternalistic Leadership

There is another way of talking about leadership that doesn't often get discussed and that is leaders as father figures. Many people want someone in charge of their organization, club, community or country who they can look up to, who can soothe their anxieties and provide them with reassurance. Rudolf Giuliani occupied this role following 9-11. Being a father figure works well enough in relatively stable, low tech situations like country clubs and charitable organizations but it is dangerous in businesses that compete through constant innovation. The problem is that it is inherently disempowering. When we stop listening to our real fathers and switch our allegiance to our boss, we run the risk of idealizing this new father figure. This is a no-win situation: we so strongly expect such leaders to walk on water that they can't help but disappoint us.

Paternal leadership is not totally dysfunctional, however. We want to please our fathers and we therefore drive ourselves to live up to their expectations. This model works well enough when the fundamental task is efficient execution. But where innovation is critical for success, we need employees who think for themselves, who do not look up to senior executives too respectfully.

Within the paternalistic framework, we unwittingly assign the good guy role to leaders making managers the bad guys. We want our leaders to be sensitive, supportive and inspiring, while we regard managers as controlling and punitive. This division of labor enables us to preserve our idealized image of them because we can simply discount bad leaders as managers. This is a defensive reaction that helps us preserve the status quo but the downside is that we avoid facing reality in order to maintain our fantasy of the good father figure.

Thought Leadership

The third model of leadership mentioned above can be called thought leadership. In knowledge driven organizations, all employees who promote a better way are showing leadership. In this context, senior executives need to operate more as facilitators, catalysts and talent nurturers than as leaders. Their role is like that of investors. They make decisions about which of the initiatives bubbling up from below are most worthy of investment.

This is not about stopping ourselves from learning from father figures or other role models. The key point is that regarding such figures as leaders can get in the way of everyone else in the organization showing leadership themselves. Dependency is never healthy, but it is especially risky and costly where organizations need everyone thinking for themselves to be successful.

See for more information on this and related topics. Mitch McCrimmon's latest book, Burn! 7 Leadership Myths in Ashes was published in 2006. He is a business psychologist with over 30 years experience of leadership assessment and executive coaching.

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