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Reclaiming ‘leadership’ from the elite

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The word 'leadership' often has elitist connotations. But, according to Louise Teboul of Common Purpose, leadership is the opposite and we can all be leaders, whether it is in our workplaces or in our own communities.

In his recent Harvard Business Review blog posting ‘Leading When You Don’t Have Formal Authority, Steven Demaio explains how everyone at some time will need to be able to lead beyond their authority “whether you’re a manager, a frontline worker, or an independent contractor, at one time or another you’ve surely had to influence, or even improve, the performance of people who don’t formally report to you.”

I agree with him on two counts. First of all, on the idea of leading beyond your authority. Was there ever a time when (to paraphrase John Donne) leaders could operate as islands, entire of themselves? I doubt it, and if there was, that time has definitely now gone. Many organisations still operate in compartments: with each division, or department, looking upwards and so seldom sideways at issues that cut across the verticals.

Now more than ever, we need leaders who can see the entire organisation and make the sum of the parts greater than the whole. We need leaders who understand the value of networks which extend far beyond traditional confines – and, more importantly, know how to lead them.

The opportunities (and threats) ahead will not come neatly packaged to fit one department, division, sector, culture, or even country, into which we have arranged ourselves. They will cross boundaries and come from unexpected places – and our leaders need to be able to do this too. And it doesn’t stop at organisations.

Society needs leaders who can overcome the silo mentality – individuals need to be able to move into different spheres of activity, outside their own area of expertise, and connect to them too. Leaders who can take responsibility for problems other than their own, both within organisations and in society at large will become more in demand, as will leaders who can still lead when their legitimacy is constantly questioned.

The opportunity to influence

This is already happening more and more in the public sector, where organisations are being asked to work together to solve complex problems facing our cities and regions, that simply cannot be resolved with just one public body. It’s not about having authority but choosing not to use it; it’s about having no authority at all. It’s about earning legitimacy with ideas that resonate – and an approach to leadership that results in people willingly granting authority to you.

This is vital. For organisations, for the people who lead them, for the people they lead, and for society as a whole. And it’s different from conventional leadership: not completely different, but different enough to be worth exploring.

Secondly, not only is being able to lead beyond your authority an important skill, I like the way Demaio sees it as something that applies to everyone, whether they have a formal leadership position or not. The word 'leadership' often has elitist connotations but I believe that leadership is the opposite, that we can all be leaders, whether it is in our workplaces or in our own communities.

This doesn’t mean everyone running for parliament, but looking at the community around them, at their neighbours, their street, the organisation they work for or the college they go to, and considering what they can do to make it better. These changes can be big or small, from helping neighbours, to starting a community group around an issue they are passionate about, to putting themselves forward to be a school governor.

The benefits are numerous, and not just for society itself, which thrives on active citizens and social capital, but for the people getting involved. By reclaiming the word ‘leader’ for all of us, and not just some far-away elite, we give ourselves the opportunity to influence, and shape, the type of society that we want to live in, not the one we happen to find ourselves in. This is not only empowering, but an exciting and challenging way to discover new talents and meet new people.

Louise Teboul is West Midlands Regional Director at Common Purpose. Common Purpose is an independent, not-for-profit organisation that shows people how to do just that. It runs educational programmes for those who want to improve the place in which they live and work. It does this by bringing together people from different backgrounds and sectors – who might otherwise never meet – and introducing them to different environments, communities and ways of working. Its aim is to help people become better decision-makers and more effective leaders and, as a result, improve the way society works.

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