Is a Leader What We Need?

Whenever I converse with others about leadership, I am never quite sure that there is a common understanding of (exactly) what the term means—I would not be surprised if others have the same experience.  Granted it is far more entertaining to talk about something that we can’t seem to agree upon—like who is #1 at the end of the college football season—but when it comes to serious matters that impact life it is quite unproductive.

When speaking of leadership many often make reference to the position of leadership and/or to those holding those positions.  It is as if leadership is synonymous with a position in the hierarchy, with being-in-charge.  It seems that this is effectually management!  There have been efforts to differentiate a manager from a leader (Warren Bennis immediately comes to mind) making being a manager not so good and being a leader good.  If we objectively examine what it is this dichotomy is seeking to highlight we will likely see that it is differentiating ineffective management from effective management. Thus many discussions about leadership are really about what constitutes good effective management.

As established in Leadership involves WE not ME, leadership is an emergent property of the relationship between individuals—it emerges from a ‘We’.  In this sense it is different than management in that it is not contingent upon holding a formal position in an organization or society.  Leadership doesn’t come from one’s position or trappings, but rather from when one recognizes and acts consistent with his/her ‘I-We’ nature and upholds his/her responsibilities both as a person and as part of a community of people.  In other words, the leadership experience speaks to the productive nature of relationships among people; more specifically to fostering humanly productive relationships.

So what is it really that we each need?  Specifically, I need you to relate to me, not as a boss relates to a subordinate, or as a leader relates to a follower—or any other dichotomous categorization—but core-to-core person-to-person.  In such a relationship there is no dichotomy, there is no separation between you and I—this is what makes us a We.  Yes though there are differences, we are after all unquestionably both human beings.  Understanding this there is a deeply felt care and concern for the wellbeing of the other.  Unfortunately, as evidenced by all the talk about leadership, this way of relating is not only infrequently experienced, it is not deeply understood as being central to the experience we commonly refer to as leadership.

I suspect that the word leadership is itself an impediment to developing a common understanding of what it is people truly need.  The term leadership doesn’t sufficiently communicate.  In all likelihood, because the term leader is contained within it, it connotes the one ahead of others leading the charge. Unavoidably it suggests a single individual holding a position on the upper rungs of the hierarchy—clearly not inclusive of others.

I propose a better word—not the ideal—but a more representative term, partner.  Partners help each other, they don’t subordinate each other.  Partnership implies equal status, not subservient status.  Whereas leadership often connotes a formal position one that only one can hold at a time, partnership simultaneously includes others.  Riane Eisler asserts that partnership recognizes and embraces our interconnectedness; noting that there is no ranking of one half of humanity over the other—this is quite consistent with our ‘I-We’ nature.  Moreover, Eisler notes partnership recognizes the interdependence of all roles and seeks effective and respectful ways to support each other’s role.  Isn’t this what we all desire?

What’s good about partnership?  It requires a responsibility that is not formally imposed but rather internally acknowledged.  A true partner makes a commitment not solely to the other, but to the We that is formed through the partnership.  By acknowledging our ‘I-We’ nature, a partnership simultaneously helps us meet our individual and collective needs; it brings to light the joint responsibility we each have for self-development and for our collective development.  Quite simply, it speaks to humanly productive relationships for progress.

I suspect we all need these productive relationships for us to make progress toward actualizing our human potential.  Individually and collectively we need to make the world a more humane world.  This is something we each can do through partnership!  It seems through partnership that modeling the behavior you wish to see in others makes a lot more sense.

24 thoughts on “Is a Leader What We Need?

  1. I like your article and think you make good points about leadership and what it represents. Leaders can only be leaders if others are following. While leaders must make decisions that impact their employees they must do as you have indicated to create a partnership environment. Leaders should not feel they are above their subordinates but equal in some respects as it takes both leaders and employees to make a success of any business. Business cannot succeed without the cooperation of all employees at all levels. The concept of creating a partnership is something I had never thought of in the concept of leadership. Great article.

  2. I am in ingreement with the concept and need for partnership. How can we as potential partners or team members overcome our feelings of fear of going out on a limb, of letting go of the traditional or the status quo in our current environments. New concepts often bring a sense of risk or self doubt even when they make sense and are just.

    • If the fear you speak of is in response to a culture of mistrust, then one person acting alone in challenging the traditional view of things would be taking on significant risk. First developing partners, thus minimizing the risk any one person is exposed to, is likely a good strategy.

  3. To answer the question, my response is yes. Leadership has traditionally been quite vertical throughout human history. Still, we are at a point in time where circumstances are ripe for moving leadership to the horizontal position. As such, with any change there’s bound to be chaos and discord, but this change in leadership is required to progress. Besides, humans need a new challenge that moves us to the next level of life – wisdom.
    If you know anything about wisdom, it comes with a price and modernity has weaved an evil web upon humans. This is to the point where if we don’t change, we will implode.
    So, leadership is needed to influence the change proactively and not reactively. If we wait for the change to happen and then react things in life will be very messy.

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