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I have recently started to attend a new course run by Common Purpose, an NGO concerned with developing leadership and civil society, informed by the belief that a powerful civil society, occupying that tier of authority between the citizen and formal government, makes for a balanced and accountable democracy. Discussing that in more detail would take a whole new blog post and will be left for another time.  What it has done for me however, besides affording the opportunity to listen to some fascinating speakers, is do some assessment of the idea of leadership, and what it means to me. My current thinking on the matter is sufficiently antithetical to the motivational, self discovery-punting, buy-my-book tirades of the motivational speakers, life coaches and god knows what other variants of snake oil salesmen that I really feel it is worth sharing. If for no other reason than because it is emotionally satisfying to un-glove the fat slap of reality and dispense it widely to those who hold leaders to be enlightened and emotional individuals, whose levels of karmic development have made them the pure and shining examples of humanity.

The course arranged by Common Purpose has, as one of its themes, the notion of leading beyond authority, which is an interesting take on the whole matter. The concept of leadership, on its most fundamental level, is really just the ability to influence or create change in an environment by virtue of your ability to gain the participation of key players in the scenario, to produce the effects you want. In order to exert influence, however, one needs to obtain power over the various actors, so that the leader can be listened to and followed in the process of trying to promote their desired change. As an analogy, if you desire to lead a pack of wolves, it would help you mightily to be holding a tasty steak or some other morsel through which to gain their acquiescence. Failure to have such interest/loyalty on the part of the wolves will lead them to ignoring you (at best) or seeing you as interfering (more likely) and eat you.

Given this understanding of the idea of leadership, the notion of leading beyond authority really deals with the idea that because we cannot always exist and function effectively in the small environment we know, we will find ourselves at times in diverse and often foreign groups, where we desire to effect change or otherwise get our way, but have no power or authority to do so. In essence, to gain what we want, we need to be able to influence the current group beyond our inherited authority to do so. It is by no means an uncommon scenario, where because you are not the boss, or are not carrying a tasty morsel, the pack ignores you and your pleas that they should listen to you go unanswered. In order to be an effective leader in such situations therefore requires that one be able to assimilate enough power and influence over the new actors so that they can create a leadership position for themselves, regardless of their formal, titled authority. This could take the form of becoming useful to members of the group on the basis of some expert knowledge that you possess, being their ally in defeating a different power bloc in the group, being perceived to be someone for whom support will be beneficial to them in the long term, or a variety of other plays – all intended to promote trust, respect and other nice things. The end purpose of which is to gain power and influence so that when the leader (you) decides that the group should do X, there is sufficient goodwill towards you to get it done.

What is missing from this analysis, you may realise, is any discussion about right and wrong, about being sincere, being true to yourself, loving your neighbour, picking flowers or praying for world peace – the sort of value-laden glop that is so often heaped upon leadership seminars with near-religious fervour. In the analysis above (and I think rightly so) there is no assertion that the ‘rightness’ of your cause, or the ‘goodness’ or ‘moral correctness’ of your position guarantees influence. In fact, as many who have tried to oppose dictators can attest, campaigning for ‘what is right’ may frequently just get you hurt. Instead, what is key to leading is simply that skill of empathy towards the existing power relations in the human landscape and the adequacy of your relational toolbox in giving you the ability to connect with, and be given influence over, enough important members of the group to get your way, to effect change.

Of course, there are reasons why you would want to effect change in the first instance, and these are usually highly personal. If one would care (in my opinion) to assess someone as a leader, then the rationale behind their undertaking to lead would be the better means to work out the rightness or wrongness of them as individuals. But this will have absolutely no bearing on their ability to elicit and weild power. The part that brings about real change and effectiveness, whether we like it or not, is simply academic method and manipulation, end-justifies-the-means kind of stuff. Having a pure original intent is not necessarily more useful than having an evil one, provided you are able to relate to all of the required players required for your vision in a manner which gains you influence.

So the next time you are in a leadership seminar, or getting told how sitting in the temple and empathising with the one-ness of your fellow man, do yourself a favour. Realise that while it may make you a better human being, it sure as hungry wolves is not going to make you a more effective leader.