Leadership vs Leaderlessness

‘Blind leading the blind’, ‘herding cats’, ‘led up the garden path’, ‘you can lead a horse to water’, ‘led by the nose’… the idioms on leadership go on. Unsurprisingly, in the wake of my acceptance on the Clore leadership programme, my thoughts have recently turned to the issue of leadership, both in the general and in the specific. In the general: what makes good arts leadership? is essentially the question at the heart of the matter. In the specific: what sort of arts sector leader do I want to be, or do I have the most potential to be, and how do I go about getting there?
Given that this is very early days in my Clore process – so early that I haven’t technically started my fellowship yet, although I can’t help thinking about it most waking moments and some sleeping ones as well – all I can do here is set down some of the many questions that are flooding my mind and hope that, over the course of the next year, some answers fall into place. Perhaps not definitive answers, perhaps only assurances that they are the right questions to be asking. I’m not expecting my Clore experience to provide me necessarily with magic answers; just an understanding of the best way to investigate the questions, a deeper understanding of the context within which these questions should be explored, and a more sophisticated understanding of the impact of that context on the questions themselves.
What I find particularly interesting is that, while I’m scouring Amazon for second-hand copies of the most enticing-sounding books on my Clore fellowship reading list, all of which are provoking a flood of questions about arts leadership, I am also currently engrossed by an equal but opposite flood of questions around the concept of leaderlessness. On account of my participation in Fierce Earth’s Metapod Connect course on social media, I’m simultaneously being encouraged to think about the benefits, potential and impact of leaderless organisations, or of unconventionally-powered organisations; organisations that embrace the power of the massed community and empower it.
The serendipitous coinciding of the two courses – Clore and Metapod – has encouraged a particularly inquisitive attitude in me: the combination of both sets of questions feels like a nicely comprehensive interrogation of some big abstract principles, and I feel that the one set sheds some light on the other.
The social media course has so far introduced me to the case study of the troubled gold-mining company who dispensed with the secrecy around its corporate intellectual copyright, published hitherto closely-guarded geological data and received accurate suggestions of future mining sites from the general public. The memorable idea here is of a relinquishing of traditional control, of sharing control for mutual benefit (the proponents of correct suggestions were rewarded with a half a million dollar prize), of allowing a mass to identify and drive an organisation’s activity, rather than an individual. Similarly, the ‘many-heads-is-better-than-one’ school of thought – the social leadership school – is introducing me to concepts of the spider or starfish organisations, a metaphor for top-down, traditionally-led organisations (that die when they lose their head, as would a spider) versus decentralised organisations (that grow a new leg when one is lost, which might in itself grow into a whole new entity, just like a starfish that loses a limb). The implication here, of course, is: starfish good, spider bad, or, to paraphrase George Orwell most cruelly: 5 self-renewing legs good, 8 head-dependent legs bad.
As a counter-balance, the Clore leadership programme, which will I think encourage the examination of many forms of leadership, no doubt among them the facilitative, implied, or collective leadership cited above, is also encouraging me to assess the role, place, need for and real value of pro-active, buck-stopping, decision-bearing leadership. Cultural leadership isn’t just something that kicks in when creative consensus breaks down, but is an active, ongoing and driving force behind many organisations whose success – in its broadest sense – is contingent upon good leadership. A bite-sized chunk of food for thought on this subject comes from Barbara Kellerman, author of Bad Leadership: What it is, how it happens, why it matters (2004), with her contention that ‘good’ leaders and ‘bad’ leaders share the same fundamental character traits: intelligence, energy, drive for power and achievement, decisiveness, and determination. The common denominator in cases of bad leadership, Kellerman contests, is that the followers are as important as the leaders, i.e. there is no bad leadership without bad followership.
So, whether the ‘spider’ model of leadership so mistrusted by the fans of social, leaderless organisations has simply been confused with poorly-led – and, by Kellerman’s contention, poorly-followed – organisations for me remains to be seen. It may, of course, not be a straight-forward choice between subscribing to the concept of leadership or leaderlessness, of one leader or of many co-leaders, like declaring forever whether you be Catholic or Protestant, but rather a question of learning to discriminate between models to find the most appropriate for a certain organisation, project, moment, group of people, or context. Much to explore, chew over and think on as I continue this very open process of questioning, re-questioning and counter-questioning.

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2 Responses to “Leadership vs Leaderlessness”

  1. Helga Says:

    Crikey Charlie! There’s a lot to take in here!

    First of all, many many congratulations on being made a Clore Fellow. It is a great privilege, frankly, to hang out with some brilliant minds.

    I think you have encapsulated more critical thinking on leadership in one post than I have managed in one year on my Clore Fellowship but I wonder whether the “leaderless” model is something of a misnomer.

    I had to write a report about what I had learned about leadership in my first year (I didn’t quite manage four paras, so again, congratulations on that post) – but one thing I did say was that

    “There are as many ways of leading as there are leaders. I am particularly impressed when I hear about structures that are put in place in organisations that empower people to make connections and be self motivated. I see that the biggest gift you can give to others as a leader is to give power away to people, stand back and let them surprise you. But that takes a lot of trust.”

    So that “leaderless” distributed model usually means that someone has set the tone: someone has stepped aside, someone has empowered others. This may take days, months or years. Michael Boyd’s ultimate ambition is that his “ensemble” makes key artistic decisions – but maybe not yet.

    I hope that you will continue to muse out loud as your two journeys continue.

  2. yascapi Says:

    Thanks Helga on several counts – for your encouragement and for your thoughts on this subject. I think what you say is absolutely right and I accept the perspective that successful ‘leaderlessness’ depends on successful leadership to enable it.
    Speaking personally, coming from the often challenging context of trying to operate as part of a non-hierarchical leadership team I can see that some of our difficulties, in particular that of us each feeling sufficiently empowered in our respective roles to act autonomously while still acting on behalf of the team, may well stem from the fact that we have had no leader operating above us in the hierarchy to step aside and empower us. The idea of us each empowering the others has proved complex because, as you say, in order to empower another, you assume or imply to some extent a hierarchy of power over that person in the first place. Which might well explain why none of us has felt able to empower the others in the team, being wary of assuming an enhanced position of power in order to do so.
    Not sure if that will make enough sense to someone unfamiliar with my particular situation, but your comments have certainly helped me think through and understand a bit better some of the challenges I’ve been facing recently, so thank you for triggering that mini-breakthrough!
    And yes, I think I will try and continue musing out loud on all this, not least because the process of setting something down in typeface really helps me rationalise and get to grips with the blur of my own thoughts. However, this process can often take me a while as all these subjects I’m delighted to be grappling with over the next year – and which you have already embarked on grappling with – are rather huge, abstract, complex ones to get my head around and try and articulate.

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