What is a Leader?

Listen to the Story

Heads of state and captains of industry, office managers and small business owners – these are roles that traditionally get labeled as leaders. During this election cycle we are once again being asked to consider who we want to lead us. But does the title of leader itself make you a leader?

While there is clearly a struggle for who wants to call themselves our leader, I’m not convinced that this struggle will ever lead to any real positive change. I think the real struggle is over what type of leadership we need.

Traditional leadership rewards positions and titles – this is the type of leadership that comes out of an election. This form believes that people are leaders because of their experience, skill and education.

However, today’s populist movement in our nation suggests that there is a distrust of anyone filling this role of traditional leadership. This distrust is a perception that the actual route to leadership is through being part of the old boys network and financially well off. No matter the reality, once you are in a traditional leadership role you become an “elite” because you are explicitly given power to command and control others.

I believe a failure of this current populist movement (like many in the past) is that it isn’t looking to put a new, sustainable model in place. Instead it just hopes to fill the same traditional leadership structure with a different set of elites.

In opposition to traditional leadership we see mostly younger, internet savvy workers trying to bypass traditional leaders all-together. They have adapted to life online, using the social power of this expansive connectivity to develop new ideas about working collaboratively. Without any formal title these connectivity based leaders use their passion about a subject, issue or cause and connect with peers who share that passion. Then together they try to solve problems, attack issues and achieve their goals. The only way this works is if they are able to define a vision that creates by-in from others; thus empowering the group to co-create the solution.

On their own these workers are doing amazing things. However the traditional command and control structure still in place in most organizations brings this connectivity based leadership to a grinding halt.

There is a quote from the Tao Te Ching about leadership that I reflect on quite frequently. “If you want to be a leader stop trying to control.”

Leaders today can’t solve our complex problems alone. That is why today’s leaders should embrace this connectivity based leadership. They must understand how to draw together the vision of a better tomorrow from the common experience of individuals; and then, instead of controlling actions, they should allow the natural power of passionate people working together to accomplish those shared goals.

Andrew Miller hosts the blog Elephants on Bicycles