Hail the leader who's one of us

A new theory states that leadership is not about shaping events but making sense of them.
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LEADERSHIP is probably as much in vogue these days as it has ever been. Whether the subject is West Indies cricket, the developments in the Gulf region or even the collapse of the planned merger between Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham, it is not long before the talk gets around to leaders.

At the same time, though, it is becoming increasingly true that while we stick to the traditional view of "political leaders", "business leaders" and the rest, the net of leadership is widening. In organisations, the advent of empowerment and flatter structures means that, in effect, we are all leaders now. In sport, too, it is becoming more common for team captains to tell interviewers that a win was not solely down to them, but to the 11, 15 or however many leaders out there that day.

It is in an attempt to explain this confusion that Bill Drath, a research scientist at the Centre for Creative Leadership in the United States, is developing a notion he terms "relational leadership". Essentially, this is a challenge to the long-standing assumption that leadership is all about individuals and how - because leadership is a quality of a person or a process that flows from a person - they can influence or head a group. The concept being developed by Mr Drath and colleagues at the North Carolina research training organisation suggests that leadership might be better understood as a collective phenomenon or "the property of a social system".

He points out that "leadership is in some ways one of the most individual ideas that people invented". After all, "most talk of leadership starts with talk of The Leader". But he questions whether this is the most effective way to describe the reality, especially when the trend for globalisation is creating a need "to be different and to be together at the same time".

With mission statements and values all the rage, even the latest management thinking makes one of the key roles of leadership creating a vision on the basis, says Mr Drath, that a single individual's "moral, ethical or strategic sense of the world" will enlist others in the cause. But he questions this view of the leader as some kind of all-knowing scientist.

Instead, he claims, there is a need to "develop theories of leadership of making sense of what we are doing". If we look on leadership in this way, leaders become part of the process but not the leaders of it. "The CEO is not causing that process any more than I am," he adds.

Looking at the idea of leadership in this way provides a better understanding, he suggests, of why - in politics, in particular - there is a perception that certain times require certain types of leader. For example, the past two decades have seen Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, two very different types of leader, in style at least, enjoy election landslides. Further back, Winston Churchill was the hero of the Second World War but was unceremoniously dumped in favour of Clement Attlee when it was felt that the peace called for a different personality.

Moreover, the idea that the leader reflects the society of which he or she is a part is given further provenance by the general recognition that Mr Blair summed up the general mood of the nation when he reacted to the first news of the death of the Princess of Wales. It is not that he provided a lead; rather, being a consummate politician, he was able to articulate what people were feeling.

And it is possible to make a solid case that it is much the same with business leaders. Those who - like John Major and his warm beer - pick on a facet of their community that is regarded as slightly odd or idiosyncractic risk ridicule.

But those who are able to get to the nub of what makes people feel good about their organisation at a particular time can, like Ronald Reagan and his evocation of "Morning in America", enjoy a good measure of success.

Since not even his most ardent supporters would suggest that Mr Reagan was all-knowing, his example is a neat illustration of how leadership perhaps ought to be seen as a participative process. As Mr Drath puts it, "leadership is a dance".

And what is important about that realisation, he says, is that it "opens up a new set of possibilities for the practice of leadership". He is thinking especially of the idea that it should be a "distributed function" rather than the province of a single formal leader. And that is something for ego-heavy boardrooms around the world to ponder as their environment becomes more complex and their geographical spread wider.