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Beware the Cult of the Leader

Our obsession with leaders is not doing leadership a favor.

By Gustavo Razzetti

June 21, 2019

Leading is good. Worshiping leaders is not.

 When Steve Jobs passed away, many pontificators predicted that Apple’s best days were gone.

Jobs cult of personality loomed large over Apple. His death only made it more prominent. Analysts and fans alike worried that the company would flounder without him.

And yet, the company has thrived since Jobs stepped down. Moreover, Leander Kahney makes the case that Tim Cook is a better CEO than Steve Jobs ever was.

In Tim Cook: The Genius Who Took Apple to the Next Level, the biographer argues that Steve Jobs was never a great CEO. At least, not in the traditional way.

He was fired from Apple for sowing terror. When Jobs returned, he did an amazing job of saving Apple. Once the ship was heading in the right direction, he turned over the day-to-day to Cook.

As Kahney explains, Cook became the de facto CEO for many years before he officially took over.

This point is not who deserves the credit for Apple’s success. Both Jobs and Cook contributed to it. But so did the other 132,000 Apple employees. We must stop worshiping leaders. Let’s move beyond the myth.

The cult of the leader is not doing leadership a favor.

Myth #1: leadership is only for a few

Reality: everyone can — and should — lead

The cult of the leader has turned leadership into something scarce.

Our society worships the individual. Our obsession with business leaders, politicians, athletes or celebrities, hinders organizational progress.

By idealizing one person, we inhibit the development of the rest.

“I’m not a leader.”

This mindset paralyzes most people. When working with larger organizations, I hear it all the time. People don’t feel they have what it takes — or the authority — to make change happens.

Anyone who wants and can make a difference is a leader.

Many people believe that leadership comes with a formal role or title. As a team coach, I think everyone can be a leader. You don’t need to be the CEO of Apple to become one.

Leading is a behavior, not a title.

You don’t need to change the world. Every small act can improve a meeting, project, team, or organization. To lead is being an agent of positive change.

In an age of disruption, every employee should act as a leader.

Employees are sensors that detect threats and opportunities that are invisible to managers. Frontline employees have the best understanding of customers. Organizations should be developing their ability and autonomy to make more decisions.

Instead, companies just want people to fit into their system.

Being a leader starts with how you see yourself.

What do you have to offer? How can you help improve the world around you? Why should others pay attention to what you have to say?

You can make a difference. It doesn’t matter how big or small. Start somewhere. Start now. Don’t let others define what you are capable of.

Myth #2: Leaders are great, managers suck

Reality: We need both leadership and management

Few ideas have more sticking power than the distinction between leadership and management.

The cult of leadership creates a polarizing view. Managers are something of the past — leaders rule.

We use the word leader to distinguish the hero from the villain, the charismatic from the control-freak, the good from the bad. The cult of the leader creates a love/hate relationship — It divides people.

We manage projects and resources. And lead people and organizations. Management and leadership cannot be separated — we need both.

General Robert Barrow said, “Amateurs talk strategy but generals study logistics.”

Leadership and management are not opposites but complement each other.

The difference between both lies in the conceptions they hold of chaos and order.

According to Abraham Zaleznick, managers embrace process, seek stability, and control. They try to solve problems quickly. Leaders tolerate chaos and lack of structure. They are willing to delay closure to understand things more fully.

Leading and management are two roles that anyone can — and everyone should — practice.

Myth #3: Leaders are superheroes

Reality: Leading is a human, vulnerable act

Investors are willing to pay a premium for shares of a company with a celebrated CEO. That’s the key finding of research by Burson Marsteller.

Business journalists and academia think the same. They worship high-profile, charismatic, leaders.

That’s the problem with the myth of the heroic leader. Great leaders aren’t heroes but inspire others. They empower people to go beyond their perceived limits.

We tend to choose leaders who are stoic, determined and look in control. Yet, research indicates that we need the opposite.

Great leaders are self-aware — you must learn to lead yourself before leading others.

As Shane Snow explains in this HBR article, we need leaders who can be like Benjamin Franklin. People who are smart and strong-willed enough to persuade others to do great things. But, also flexible enough to think differently. They can admit when they’re wrong, and adapt to dynamic conditions.

Leading requires having strong relationships. Without trust, there’s no collaboration. Being trustworthy is more important than being competent.

Trust is an act of vulnerability. We must acknowledge and accept our flaws. As research shows, when we try to look perfect or in charge, people can perceive us as unauthentic.

Vulnerability doesn’t mean being weak but that you trust yourself, despite your weaknesses.

Lolly Daskal said, “To be human is to discover we can be vulnerable and still be strong.”

The perception that vulnerability hinders performance is a myth. It’s an asset for leaders, as research shows.

Vulnerable leaders are more self-aware. They inspire others, are more authentic, and trustworthy. Building strong bonds leads to increased performance.

Myth #4: Leaders succeed alone

Reality: Successful leaders thrive in duos

Behind every great leader, there’s a great partner.

We usually associate Apple successful story with Steve Jobs. But, that dream wouldn’t have been possible without the other Steve: Wozniak.

Jobs was a dreamer and idealist. He envisioned new products and redefined our relationship with technology. Wozniak was the pragmatic, feet on the ground engineer. He made Job’s vision a reality.

Successful duos build successful companies. Bill Hewlett & Dave Packard. Ben & Jerry’s. Larry Page & Sergey Brin. The power of the duos is one of the most underrated concepts in leadership theory.

The greatest duos do their best work together. Your sidekick amplifies your superpowers and neutralizes your kryptonite.

Your partner does more than complement your skills. It’s your go-to person. Your duo increases your accountability. It uncovers your blind spots, and keep you focused and honest.

No one changes the world alone.

Who’s your duo? Accept your limitations, and find someone to fill the gaps.

Myth #5: Leadership is about the individual

Reality: Leadership is about building community

Individualism is a fine idea but doesn’t create the right outcomes.

Organizations pay lip service to the importance of collaboration. But then reward individual behavior, not teamwork. If bonuses are based on individual goals, you can’t expect people to work as a team.

To focus on leadership as an individual trait diminishes the organizational factors. Corporate performance is not the result of the CEO’s actions alone.

Companies like Intel do not pay much attention to individual leadership development. Instead, they ask, “What qualities do we need to develop in our organization?”

To transform the organization, you need more than a leader. Create a sense of mission.

Henry Mintzberg explains we need to rebuild companies as communities. Effective transformations happen from the middle-out, not top-down, as the professor explains.

In his own words:

“We have this obsession with leadership. Its intention may to be to empower people, but its effect is often to disempower them. By focusing on the single person, even in the context of others, leadership becomes part of the syndrome of individuality that is sweeping the world and undermining organizations.”

Innovation and creativity are byproducts of a leadership culture — not a leader.

Ed Catmull attributes Pixar’s success to its vibrant culture. He describes it as:

“a community where talented people are loyal to one another and their collective work. Everyone feels that they are part of something extraordinary.”

The passion and accomplishments made the Pixar community a magnet for talented people.

We are social animals. A community is a social glue — it binds us together to drive positive change. We do our best work within a social system that’s larger than ourselves.

Leading is building a community. Great leaders focus on developing a culture, not their fame.

Leading is good. The cult of leadership is not.

Think of leadership as an action (leading), not a role (leader).

Everyone can — and should — lead. No matter how small or significant your contribution, the world needs you. Stop admiring leaders. Start leading.

What do you think?



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