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Overcoming the Cult of Leadership

Nancy Lublin’s column in the April issue of Fast Company, “Let’s Hear It for the Little Guys,” contains insights that are important to the whole field of social change. She points out that our obsession with leadership, and the corresponding lack of recognition for the “little guys”—implementers, mid-level managers, intrapreneurs, followers—has some real negative effects. Two points she makes particularly stand out. First:

There’s a totally unevenly sliced pie when it comes to rewards. In wonkier terms, you’d call that a resource allocation problem: While CEOs represent the smallest part of our labor pyramid, a disproportionate amount of time and money is spent grooming them, charting who’s about to join their ranks, and celebrating “their” achievements…The working world would be a happier place if more of us aspired to roles that were just right – if we valued job fit and performance at every level and stopped overemphasizing the very top.

Her second point is that today a "crazy redundancy" exists. She writes:

You can see it in the not-for-profit sector, which has a gazillion little organizations replicating one another. We all want to run our own thing, so not-for-profits never die. As a result, we have huge inefficiency and ridiculous amounts of overlap in the sector.

As people who have led and consulted for nonprofits for almost 10 years each, we can attest to these inefficiencies and the resulting morale-draining effects. The cult of leadership stifles mutual learning and collaboration, diminishes power, and interestingly, rarely ends up being in the leaders' self-interest either. These factors collectively lead to feelings of isolation, both within and across organizations, and an unhealthy competition for resources and media attention. We've both been there, and it can get ugly.

Lublin's column doesn't point to any specific solutions other than a general exhortation that we must honor the doers, but there are likely many good specific ideas for how to do this. However, there’s another approach that relies less on breaking the obsession on leadership and more on expanding the notion of leadership to include, centrally, deep skills around collaboration.

Leadership gurus from Lao Tzu to John C. Maxwell have long recognized the importance of collaboration, but when you look across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, dysfunctional collaboration is rampant. From poorly facilitated meetings to poorly structured coalitions, many leaders lack a basic literacy in the principles of good collaboration or network theory, much less today's new tools and best practices that make collaboration even easier.

Greater collaboration doesn't mean collapsing many smaller groups into large, monolithic institutions (although some degree of consolidation is probably useful). It just means learning to work together better, which, given the 30 million businesses and 1.5 million registered nonprofits in the United States, is probably a more realistic solution than mass consolidation. In fact, there are many good reason to maintain our institutional diversity.

For one thing, diversity equals resiliency. Consider monoculture farming, which is much more susceptible to disease and pests than growing a mix of crops together. In economic terms, the arguments about breaking up the “Too Big To Fail” banks are built on roughly similar lines. More small players reduces the damage to the whole system that can result from a single failure.

But diversity also drives innovation. There’s a growing body of economic research, sometimes traced back to Robert Solow’s Nobel Prize-winning growth models of the 1950s, that suggests innovation is the single most important variable that drives economic growth. This is fairly intuitive: Innovation generates productivity dividends that result in job and wealth creation. Slightly less intuitive, perhaps, is the fact that small firms develop innovative technology (as measured by patents per capita) at substantially higher rates than large companies. Given the global need for radical innovation to solve a myriad of problems and heal the global economy, it’s probably to our benefit to have so many small, innovative companies and non-profits around.

So, perhaps much greater collaboration among many diverse players is the best of both worlds: you get the resiliency and innovation from many diverse players, and the efficiency and improved morale from collaboration. The only question is how do we best leverage all of the tools and platforms available today to enable this kind of diversity and collaboration to flourish? This will have to be the topic of a future column. Which, naturally, we’d love to get all of your thoughts on. Ahhhh, crowdsourcing.

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