I have a smart friend named Laura. She works on global health projects around the world. She says, “People are sheep.”
I think what she is saying is the people don’t pay much attention to the leaders they follow. They don’t make much distinction between hierarchy and leading. What Laura knows is that these two roles are very different and that mistaking hierarchy for leading can get a person hurt.
Groups and organizations have some need for hierarchy. Hierarchy provides some orientation and direction, sets norms, resolves conflict and provides protection. Ron Heifetz at Harvard calls all this authority.
I also think Laura is calling us out. She’s asking us to reflect on our assumptions about power, rank, hierarchy and leading. Many have reported that there seems to be a global trend to select “strong authoritarian leaders.” That is a low bar selection and these people are not leaders or leading anyone.
My professional territory for the last twenty years has been building adaptive leadership capacity in organizations of all types. I know we need more leadership capacity that enables people to understand how to account for the whole system, take on wicked problems, address social complexity and make some real progress on our big challenges.
There are not many people up to this calling. The work is hard. A person can get hurt. It often takes a long time to mobilize people to follow though French President Emmanuel Macron proves it is possible. But the biggest source of resistance would-be leaders face is the demand for personal change.
Leaders in these times need more leadership craft including self-reflection, facilitation skills, patience, grit and artist attributes (more on this later). Craft building takes time and most of us are not willing to commit that time and then follow the demanding practice it takes to build capacity.
I do believe that the people who take on this craft building will find more leadership opportunities and fewer qualified candidates to challenge them. Tomorrow I have the opportunity to facilitate a leadership conversation with twenty-three high school students. I suspect this is the real territory for building adaptive leadership capacity. Start early.