We tend to think of leaders as being uniters — individuals who can use their breathtaking and often mysterious powers of influence over others to set the crowd in pursuit of a common goal. And this is, indeed, the dominant view of leadership: the effect of an individual on the group.
Consider for a moment, though, that leaders are, in fact, not generally uniters. Leaders are inherently divisive figures. They stand up, choose a side, chart a course, set the tone. And, in doing so, they bisect an issue, placing people squarely on one side or another. They demarcate. They make people choose a side.
In their book, “Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading,” Heifetz and Linsky make the case that leadership is a risky business. Leaders who are, in fact, leading, threaten people by challenging the status quo — challenging people’s values, challenging people’s understanding of the world, challenging people’s self-efficacy. Change is scary, but necessary. And, evolutionarily speaking, it’s also beneficial. Ideas are evolutionary and sometimes revolutionary; and I think successful leaders make themselves the personification of ideas — the face of change, if you will.
But this changes the nature of leadership then, doesn’t it? If leaders aren’t pipers sent to entice the crowd with their song and lead us toward unity, then what? I think, rather, they become markers, or bisectors that allow followers to choose a side. And this puts more power in the hands of the followers than previously considered.
Leadership scholar James Macgregor Burns wrote, “The key distinctive role of leadership at the outset is that leaders take the initiative. They address their creative insights to potential followers, seize their attention, and sparks further interaction. The first act is decisive because it breaks up a static situation and establishes a relationship.”
And this has implications for that relationship between leader and followers. When we take into consideration a more powerful followership, the relationship becomes less top-down, less dictatorial. Power becomes more diffuse, more follower-centered. People follow because they identify with the ideas that the leader personifies, not necessarily with the leader. The leader’s primary role is to define the issue and envision the future.
I think of Simon Sinek’s TED Talk on the Law of Diffusion of Innovation, in which he says that, of the quarter million people who crowded the National Mall in August 1963 to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak, none of them came for him. They came for themselves. The line had been drawn for so long between black and white; Dr. King redrew it between freedom and oppression, and they picked a side.