Does Your Organization Suffer from Leadership Without Leaders?

In December, John Varney published an important book entitled Leadership as Meaning-Making Take the Hero's Journey to Transformation, which takes a fresh look at leadership as a systemic shared phenomenon. It is one aspect of the evolutionary principle of bringing people to maturity as human beings – transforming the immature through purposeful adventure. 

I spoke with John this month and asked him: “What are the most common misconceptions about leadership and its meaning?” Here is his complete answer:

Leadership without leaders. 

We are conditioned to think of leadership as what leaders do – and hence to look around for leaders to help solve the great issues of the day.  But this is leadership only as it manifests through control and command hierarchies of power. Such leadership consigns the rest of us to be followers – subservient and powerless. Followers are there only to do the work and sustain the status of those who presume to lead. Followership is disempowering and often demeaning. As a follower, you do what is expected of you (your so-called "duty") and take the blame for any shortfall. 

This kind of leadership sustains a whole industry of leadership training and development. This, we might cynically observe, teaches managers the manipulative techniques that get the followers to do their bidding, willingly and unquestioningly. Leaders are sometimes popular because they do our thinking for us and absolve us of feelings of responsibility. 

A very different kind of leadership is latent in the relationships between us and comes to the fore when we come together in common cause. This is leadership as a flow of energy and resources directed by our sense of purpose. It engages all of us and all our talents and potential. It is leadership in which all participate, stepping into and out of the flow of energy and resources (the value-adding stream) as we intuitively respond to our calling. 

Both modes of leadership have their place and their value but only one leads to freedom and wholeness. In self-organising communities of practice, individuals grow inwardly as they realise their potential in service to their elective mission. Nobody is pulling their strings as they discover and pursue their freely chosen purpose in life. This is leadership as meaning-making. As I say in the book, “Perhaps the hiatus of the pandemic will enable us to show that a more organic and holistic way of being is not only possible but is more wholesome and fulfilling."

How do you define "leadership" in your organization? How has it affected workplace culture? Has it evolved past "command and control"?