We have heard of folk psychology and folk medicine – age old beliefs now discarded – but what about ”folk leadership?” The idea that a leader is a strong individual at the head of a group is primitive given that it is shared throughout the higher animal kingdom. Casting aside primitive notions of leadership could be as beneficial to organizations as modern medicine has been to our health.
There have been books written on folk psychology and folk medicine. An economist, Paul Rubin, writing in The Southern Economic Journal, Vol. 70, 2003 has introduced the concept of folk economics to label the false beliefs of lay people about the economy.
Folk physics contains many false beliefs, such as that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones but many of our everyday beliefs about the physical world are good enough for normal purposes. We don’t need any knowledge of modern physics for basic survival. Similarly, folk leadership might be good enough for simple situations but insufficient for complex, fast changing businesses.
Characteristics of Folk Leadership
History is full of heroic exploits of great leaders who are nearly always men, strong decisive types who knew what they wanted and how to get it. We have moved beyond the need to be physically strong, but it still helps to be tall with a strong personality to really inspire followers. Our folk concept of leadership specifies that the leader should be a father figure, someone we can look up to, admire and who we can turn to when we are in trouble. Like our fathers, we want leaders to know what to do, to be decisive and seemingly invincible. Such leaders must have some sort of strength or power to win our respect and to ward off external threats.
Complexity and Leadership
A simple leadership situation is the small group, such as clubs or gangs. In simple groups, an external threat is met by physical attack. Modern organizations that compete through innovation are also locked in battle, but their ammunition is creative thinking, the rapid development of new products and services. The person at the top of a simple group can direct it into physical battle, but in a complex organization driven by innovation, the person at the top may not know where to turn. Our folk concept of leadership runs into trouble here because we expect leaders to have the answers. But today’s executives depend on front line knowledge workers to come up with creative ideas for new products.
We have two ways to address the problem of complexity. Either we say that the person in charge no longer provides leadership or we change our definition of leadership to fit the facts. The second option is the popular choice; we now say that leadership is a facilitative, empowering activity, that it isn’t necessary for the leader to provide direction.
Changing the Meaning of Leadership
Folk concepts address a human need, even if just to explain how things work. Modern medicine and other sciences succeeded in replacing folk concepts because they could come up with better explanations. If the head of a complex group cannot provide direction, there is the option of saying that such a person is a manager not a leader. Instead of deleting the need to provide direction from our concept of leadership, we could maintain that leaders do indeed provide direction but that it can be bottom-up as well as top-down.
Characteristics of Bottom-up Leadership
– Provides new direction by promoting a better way of doing business or by offering a new product, for example, the Sony employee who convinced top management, despite resistance, to develop Playstation.
– Based on the power to innovate, not the power to dominate a group.
– Captures part of folk wisdom – that leaders break new ground, show the way, challenge the status quo.
– Constantly shifting because no one can monopolize good ideas, so it cannot be position based or hierarchical.
– A one-off act, not a role or person; it is a specific impact which can be shown to an organization by teams as well as individuals.
– Can come from outside the business, such as a competitor. It isn’t restricted to organization members, let alone the person in charge.
– Comes to an end once senior management buys the proposed innovation, so it does not entail the leader managing implementation.
– Has nothing to do with managing people.
– Can be shown throughout the organization, as in guerrilla warfare; it is not exclusively top down.
Implications of Reinventing Leadership
Much of what those in charge of groups do must be recast as management. We can upgrade our image of management and regard it as supportive, facilitative and empowering. We can now say that leadership promotes new directions while management executes them as efficiently as possible.
Organizations wanting to foster greater engagement and talent retention, as well as faster innovation, could do so by making front line knowledge workers feel like leaders, by viewing their attempts to promote new products or better processes as acts of leadership. This takes empowerment a big step further. Senior executives need to be emotionally intelligent enough to recognize that they don’t need to show all the leadership that an organization requires. Folk leadership is disempowering. It creates dependency in everyone who is not in a leadership position.
See http://www.leadersdirect.com for more information on this and related topics. Mitch McCrimmon has over 30 years experience in executive assessment and coaching. His latest book, Burn! 7 Leadership Myths in Ashes, 2006, challenges conventional thinking on leadership. Warning: you might find it annoying if you are committed to the usual platitudes about leadership.
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