Leadership Reconceived

We think of leadership as a relational act. It assumes that at least one leader, and at least one follower, in some way interact. We further think of leadership as an intentional act. It assumes that the leader deliberately, willfully, intends for follower(s) to go along.

But what if both these assumptions sometimes are wrong? What if leadership is not always a relational act, at least not in any detectable way? And what if the follower goes along, though not, or, at least, not necessarily, because the leader deliberately intends for followership to take place?

Think, for example, of great scientists and mathematicians, such as, say, Copernicus and Einstein. Presumably they had an interest in persuading others of the veracity and validity of their ideas. But they did not, so far as we know, undertake their endeavors for this primary purpose. Their primary purpose was not to lead, but to discover. Their primary purpose was the thing itself –it was not to engage or persuade others.

Still, in time, others went along. Others followed their lead. Others came to recognize that at least in one critical way, Copernicus and Einstein were superior and they were subordinate. Of course these two men were geniuses, so how might this apply in circumstances more mundane?

We know by now that leadership in the second decade of the 21st century is difficult to exercise, specifically in situations that are more democratic than autocratic. We further know that in every group or organization there are at least some people who have little or no interest in leading and managing; they prefer not to engage with other people, but rather to be autonomous. They prefer to be left alone to do their own work.  In fact, experts often fall into this category. They are specialists whose primary purpose is to perfect the projects to which they in particular are dedicated.

The question then is, how do people like these get compensated in systems that specifically reward leaders and managers? In most organizations, even those that proclaim flat hierarchies, career advancement, along with money and power, is equated with becoming a leader or manager. But, becoming a leader or manager requires intentional interpersonal engagement, which clearly does not suit many men and women with proclivities and capacities unrelated to emotional intelligence. How then to reward these people for who they are, rather than penalize them for who they are not?

A couple of years ago, Rackspace, a U.S. based cloud-computing company, came up with an answer to this question. Rackspace had a problem that was by no means unusual: members of its technical staff frequently felt themselves inadequately compensated, and so defected to other companies. Rackspace’s rewards, in other words, were going in the main to men and women in positions of leadership and management, not to the technical experts who were, after all, responsible for making the trains run on time – in fact, for making the trains run at all.

Rackspace’s response was to come up with what it called a “technical career track” (TCT). It was a way for those who did not want to lead other people nevertheless to play a leadership role. This particular leadership role was not tied to excellence in interpersonal engagement, or for that matter to intentionality, but to excellence in a particular area of expertise. So far, though TCT is still in its early stages, it is proving promising. As one person put it, a designer of data storage systems, “I now know it’s possible to lead by using my knowledge to push what we can do for customers, rather than by managing people.”

What he has come to understand is that of itself good work can be good leadership. It’s a model that, however counter-intuitive, we would do well to bear in mind. One could argue, in fact, that a way of leading that does not depend  on intentionally engaging followers has at this particular moment a particular appeal.


For more on the TCT in Rackspace, see: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/1c08b5b4-cc87-11e4-b5a5-00144feab7de.html#axzz3VayXfmQE





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