Its time for us to talk about ordinary leadership


Everything I was taught about leadership for much of my life encouraged me to focus on "heroic" leaders - people such as Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Angela Merkel, and Steve Jobs. This led me to think of leadership as a very individual action concerned with reforming, modifying, and moulding our world. This notion was a driving force behind my desire to assume greater responsibility, become a leader, and drive change.

And yet, the more I've "led," the more I've questioned if this image makes sense. It certainly didn't seem to apply to me. So I began to read all the books I could read about leadership. I kept coming across this conceptual distinction between leadership and management as I did this. Where leaders set the vision and performed transformational tasks, and managers implemented this vision. I tried to make sense of it all, but I couldn't. Leadership and management were not different activities in my mind or experience; in fact, the persons I considered the best leaders in my life were frequently managers.

Increasingly, it has become clear that we have it around the wrong way. There are times and places where 'leadership' is exercised as a distinct phenomenon, most often due to a position of power, authority, time, and place - Nelson Mandela, for example. But, most of the time, managers take on the mantel of leadership. We don't talk about these people, and we certainly don't look to managers for examples of great leadership.


Leadership books focus on the individual leader, their vision, who they are, and how they create gravitas and a compelling vision for the future. Unfortunately, I've come to believe that leadership experts have tended to go looking for the transformational leadership outliers by making this distinction. The people we expect to challenge, change and transform organisations - not just by making them work better, but by completely changing how the organisation works and operates. You may observe this for yourself by scrolling through the current list of top leadership books; here's one example - these books' one-line summaries almost all focus on great leaders and transformational change.


Recently, I've begun to wonder if these leadership principles, or the emphasis on the 'heroic' model of leadership, truly make sense. The focus on one person's act of leadership is an idea that is repeated over and over. Even the concept of "responsible leadership" attempts to define what it means to lead successfully as an individual in an organisation.


But what if we switched our focus? Will Campbell's blog examined the gap between leadership as a skill set and the emphasis on the leader. Will is proposing that we focus on the leadership skills of our managers and organisations. I fully agree, and I would argue that we should re-articulate our focus on leadership towards a concept of ordinary leadership.


What exactly do I mean by this?

First and foremost, I want to emphasise that leadership is ordinary. We shouldn't need to turn to outliers people for examples of leadership; instead, it should be built on the personalities and experiences of those around us. Leadership exists in various contexts, but we have burdened ourselves with a reductionist way of thinking about leadership that emphasises the individual and the transformational. Even when books discuss the long-term obstacles of change, they always emphasise a singular individual's leadership vision, an individual's perseverance, rather than the organisation's desire to change.


Second, everyday leadership occurs all the time; it is a skill that society should cultivate if we are to address the most difficult problems humanity faces. In speaking with people about leadership, I've discovered that the most frequent characteristic of leadership is a sense of responsibility, a responsibility to the people around you. This sense of responsibility to one's team, colleagues, and organisation most often drives people to play a leadership role.


Third, we must alter the leadership images we project to children and ourselves as adults. There is a time and place for the Barak Obamas of the world, with their soaring oratory. Still, there is also, and I would argue, a greater need for the individual dedicated to developing their team, supporting those around them, and following through on their promises. These are generally unnoticed leaders, but they are extraordinarily essential leaders capable of effecting global change, typically one tiny leadership move at a time.


In the next weeks, I plan to delve deeper into this subject to argue why management and leadership should be viewed as part of the same process rather than as two distinct positions, skill sets, and responsibilities. I'd like to understand how bravery and leadership go hand in hand, not just standing up to a more powerful person.


After all, ordinary leadership keeps the world turning, and if we don't focus on the majority of people striving to make their patch a little bit better, we're passing up the best chance for significant change. In other words, it is time to shift our focus away from the outliers and toward the core group of leaders who genuinely form and construct our world.