Businesses need a new approach to the practice of leadership — and to leadership development.

We have spent so much time and space, even in this magazine, looking for leadership in all the wrong places. Leadership is really not about leaders themselves. It’s about a collective practice among people who work together — accomplishing the choices we make together in our mutual work.

That’s not, of course, the conventional notion of leadership. Beginning in the 19th century, the “Great Man” theory of leadership held that the historical march of civilization occurs based on the deeds of great individual leaders. Furthermore, these great leaders were thought to have been born with particular traits that accorded them greatness. Their deeds flowed from their personalities.

Even though the study of leadership has since moved on to such factors as leadership styles and behaviors, the charismatic ideal of prominent leaders remains. Derived from the Greek, charisma has a meaning of both a gift and a grace that allows certain individuals to sway others and shape the future by their sheer presence and personality.

But we’re at somewhat of a crossroads now in discerning just how successful the world’s great charismatic leaders have been over the past two centuries. Some might argue that our world is at a higher state of peaceful coexistence than at any prior time. However, others might contend that the human race is closer to the brink of extinction than at any time in history — and that our leaders have brought us to this point.

What’s more, within corporations, there is a concern that, given such conditions as accessible communications technology, size and complexity, top-down oversight by leaders has limitations. For example, a September 2014 article from HR magazine quoted Simon Lloyd, HR director of the bank Santander UK, as observing that “technology is freeing things up”; he went on to say that because of the sheer size of organizations, “trying to impose a command-and-control structure doesn’t work.” In the same article, Betsy Sutter, corporate senior vice president and chief people officer at VMware Inc., was quoted as saying that, because of the rapid pace of change, “you can’t expect to be able to scale, transform and win if you’re not creating agile models. If it’s top-down, it moves too slowly.

7 Comments On: Rethinking Leadership

  • Allen Katz | June 16, 2015

    The Mandela model of leadership is definitely not one to be emulated. Mandela took well to the role of transition leadership, creating a Moses-type path by separating the seas and showing a light of hope and color (of the Rainbow nation) ahead.

    He was a great statesman who spent ( perhaps too much time) travelling the world, mustering support and espousing his philosophy for the S. African future. He showed tolerance and listening, required by all leaders and managers, however he failed in some respects to prepare a future cadre of leaders. Yes, Mandela disappointed his people and nation in that he never prepared, taught, mentored and directed a follow-up generation of leaders to take the responsibility and move the country, united, forward. In fact the height of our expectation of his model of leadership is the depth of disappointment.

    This certainly wouldn’t sustain in any business environment where disruption and change are frequent and endless. His model was an excellent buffer and protector in still waters in an extreme transition stage but showed no foresight for future direction and abilities and talents to navigate, negotiate and sail through rough seas. The captains of late at the helm of the ship are inadequate, corrupt and greedy, seeking the golden calves, and the ironic result of lack of preparation of a future leadership cadre, that could’ve jumped out of the shadow of the wave, left by a great man.

    The current national leaders (for lack of other words) certainly aren’t skilled in collective practices, something their mentor forgot to teach them? Mandela, your work was incomplete; what a pity, as your heritage is being tarnished by the storms of greed as they erode away your visions and values of a Rainbow people!

  • Ian Jones | June 17, 2015

    It was a pity that the author took an exmple from the world of politics, where the life cycles are too short to carry out his teachings.

    Mandela chose a single term in office for a variety of reasons.
    He could not have done more than he did.
    The current mess is not his legacy.

  • kelechi kalu | July 21, 2015

    The point of the article and the use of Mandela as an example of a new kind of leader is that the big man theory of leadership had its moment in history. Contemporary environment calls for a “new way of thinking about leadership — not as a set of traits possessed by particularly gifted individuals, but as a set of practices among those engaged together in realizing their choices.” The author’s use of Mandela as an example of a new kind of leadership is excellent because Mandela led by shared vision, collaborative engagement with his leadership team and in some instances with the people.

    Mandela was a transitional leader by choice — setting example of selfless service in the interest of his country and, in contrast to the bullies that led other African states. Such an exemplary leadership can inform both contemporary governance in states in transition or businesses that need transitional leaders who build bridges to the future as strategies for sustainability.

    The alternative — a non-consensus builder strong man approach — would have spelt disaster for South Africa as for businesses that fail to take shared vision and collaborative leadership seriously.

    Indeed, the current state of affairs in South Africa makes the case for the use of Mandela as an example–when states or companies fail to work together with their people for collective advancement, suboptimal performance is often their reward.

  • Eduardo Testart | July 21, 2015

    I do agree that he did the best, but, is interesting not to blaim him but to look what he missed or failed because mistakes are one of the best ways to learn.

  • ADENIYI ELEGBEDE | September 17, 2015

    Mandela was a great leader in all respect. As a human being, he definitely has his own shortcomings but that is not to disparage him. He taught the world the lesson of forgiveness which if imbibed will minimise the current crisis in the world. Leaders need to learn to forgive.

  • Paul H Aube | March 20, 2016

    Leader (old english & german for someone, an individual, the number one, the principal… in the lead) + Ship (a vessel that carries people/things). So leadership is about an individual leading/forcing/influencing others that perceive the former as wise, curious, powerful, useful, interesting, inspiring or irritating… self-interest relationships.

    Why do we keep having these philosophical dialogues on a subject that as been eschewed since… ?

    There will always be a “number one”, a parent, an authority, a supervisor/boss, a captain, an alpha or a king. It is part of our human nature to lead and be lead. It started with God, now the positivist secular individual and then artificial intelligence.

    “Men” change, “God” remains.

  • Werecover Data | August 11, 2017

    The point of the item and using Mandela for example of a new type of chief is that the huge guy theory of leadership had its moment in history. contemporary surroundings calls for a “new way of considering leadership — no longer as a fixed of trends possessed with the aid of mainly talented individuals, but as a set of practices among st those engaged together in realizing their alternatives.” the writer’s use of Mandela for example of a brand new form of leadership is exceptional because Mandela led by way of shared vision, collaborative engagement together with his leadership group and in a few instances with the humans.

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