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“A leader without followers is just someone out for a walk.”
Various versions of this saying, often attributed to author John C. Maxwell, are frequently used to encourage people in power to focus on inspiring others. But if you listen within many companies today, you may get the sense that a lot of them have forgotten — or never learned — the lesson in the adage.
Working with a wide range of organizations, I’ve come to see that overuse of the term leader often renders it nearly meaningless. Too many of the people given this moniker aren’t doing anything to inspire followers. Sure, they have some power in the hierarchy. But they’re not leading anyone anywhere.
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The problem isn’t just semantic. It’s cultural. People aspire to become “leaders” in their organizations. When an organization assigns this label to people who are carving new paths and inspiring others, they help grow this kind of talent. But when they use the term based on hierarchies, they show that power is the more valued commodity, and they give employees less incentive to try to change the status quo.
In order to transform, meet the demands of the future of work, and tackle many of the biggest problems facing society, businesses need people who will innovate and bring others along as they move the organization in new directions. That can mean coming up with new products and services or new ways to sell. It can also mean addressing inequality or systemic challenges in how the business operates.
To fuel this kind of leadership, it’s time for businesses to come together around a joint understanding of the term. My organization, Gapingvoid, defines leaders as “A” players who own their power to make change happen and are willing to do the hard thing without being told to. Through this process, they earn and elevate influence. By this definition, an employee at any level can be a leader by taking a stand on an important issue, setting a tone, and serving as an example that others can follow.
When this kind of leadership is prized, the ripple effects spread throughout the organization. Through years of work with a wide range of businesses, I’ve come to see that it’s an essential part of building culture around purpose.