Every Day, Everyone, A Leader
Proposing a new theory about leadership is akin to devising a new flavor of ice cream for Baskin-Robbins, the 31-flavors desert franchise. Sure, everyone appreciates your ingenuity and persistence, but who really is going to buy a new flavor in an already crowded field?
Advancing a new view of leadership, especially one that emphasizes complexity, introspection and the democratic cultivation of new leaders, is challenging but necessary. In the last few decades, we have come to worship the charismatic leader – strong in crisis, magnetic in personality and passionate of vision. Yet, after years of the born-to-lead culture, today’s public space is sorely lacking leaders who are capable of mastering their organizations and inspiring change, both internally and externally. The 21st century, with its complexity and fragmentation, demands a new type of leader and a improved approach to leadership.
The dominant leadership theories that have guided public discussion and scholarship have fostered generations of leaders in industry and government. They have a solid track record of achievement, and they should not be discarded. Effective leaders do have a vision for the organization; a passion for executing that vision; and have established an environment of transparency and integrity to ensure the organization succeeds. These are great, albeit clichéd, notions that must evolve to meet the needs of today’s organizations.
There is one popular leadership model that I would discard. HarvardBusinessSchool Professor Abraham Zaleznik in his 1977 essay, “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?”, dramatically changed the trajectory of leadership scholarship and not for the better, in my view. By turning leadership into a personality trait, Zaleznik laid the foundation for the cult-based view of leaders. Only visionary, charismatic and inspiring individuals need apply for the ranks of leadership. I vehemently disagree.
Sudhir Venkatesh, a respected sociologist and professor at Columbia University, David Slocum, director of Specialized Executive EducationPrograms at the George Washington School of Business, and I have fashioned a theory around Creative Leadership. Certainly we are not the first to coin the phrase, but we have expanded on its meaning in light of past scholarship, our view of today’s leadership void and our ideas on how best to elevate a new style of leadership and leader for this century.
Leadership isn’t the province of the magnetic personality, and it isn’t solely reserved for the individual at the top of the corporate ladder. It doesn’t depend exclusively on a passionate vision or assume that integrity alone will guarantee effectiveness.
Creative Leadership, quite simply, is built on the notion that leaders are not born but rather forged in the day-to-day work of organizations; that only by mastering organizational and human complexity can leaders align strategy with organizational dynamics; and that leaders must know themselves, alert to their failings and graces, in order to better serve the organization. The anchors of our Creative Leadership framework are organized around four key themes: complexity and alignment, humility and being wrong, democracy, and introspection.
Complexity and alignment. Leaders must embrace complexity for the opportunities it holds, both the complexity of the organization and of the human dynamics within the organization. Only by thinking deeply about these intricate patterns and relationships can a leader align organizational form and function, and craft strategies that create new and unexpected avenues for organizational growth and innovation.
Humility and being wrong. Leaders must have an innate understanding of who they are and be able to define their strengths and weaknesses. While some debate whether acknowledging weakness and apologizing for errors undermines leaders, we contend that by admitting mistakes leaders can gain credibility and trust within the organization. Humility is a powerful tool for personal and institutional growth.
Democracy. Individuals at every level of the organization are capable of leadership. In fact the success of the organization depends on each individual being empowered to lead, because leaders are not born, they mature in the workplace and in civic life.
Introspection. Creative leaders do not lead by intuition or charisma alone, but instead by having the patience to think analytically about how the parts of their organizations fit together as a whole. They think deeply about their role in their organizations and how best to lead – or to evolve as leaders – based on their profound understanding of themselves and their institutional cultures.
Finally, Creative Leadership demands that individuals be the leaders the organization needs and deserves, whether the CEO or the janitor. This kind of leadership is built and sustained through everyday action because it insists on the full participation of everyone. Creative leadership’s goal isn’t the creation of effective leaders alone, it is the creation of successful organizations that are guided by far-sighted, humble and creative leaders.
This new thinking about leadership might seem drab in comparison to flashier manifestos, the Rocky Roads of leadership scholarship. What I’m proposing is a simple framework – built on a deep understanding of human behavior and interpersonal relationships – that’s sole purpose is creating an effective organization. In leadership, as in ice cream, sometimes the best choice is vanilla, the most versatile and universal of all the flavors.
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