Can there be a leader without a team or a team without someone leading it? Team members are largely overlooked and seen as anonymous, passive enablers of their leader’s vision — whether that leader is a CEO, a head of state, or even a supervisor. In reality, as is often quoted, leaders are only as good as their team.
Paired words are often used for relationships where one has no meaning without the other — teacher and student, nurse and patient, etc. Yet, there is a tendency to see one as more important than the other.
Sports is one of the few team activities in which each team member’s special skill is recognised, even if the captain of the team is held responsible for success or failure.
Hierarchical organisational structures were created after watching animal herd which had an alpha or leader of the pack. However, as more studies emerge, the complexity of organisation in the animal world becomes evident. When beehives get crowded, it is not the queen or the drones, but a small group of worker bees, or scouts, who decide the location of the new hive. The V formation of migrating birds has constantly changing leaders and as such each bird is both leader and follower.
Unlike traditional war planning by the top brass, the new asymmetric warfare requires the soldier on the ground to have the ability to make intuitive judgements. Many new businesses especially in the technology development sector like the video game developer, Valve, give space and autonomy to team members to arrive at creative solutions.
Creative autonomy is not a new concept. Mughal miniatures, although known as the work of one artist, were in fact created in Mughal karkhanas or workshops with one artist developing the tarh or design, another the colouring or rang amizi, another doing the portraits or chihrehyi name.
Frederic Laloux in his book, Reinventing Organisations, explains the natural devolution of new organisational structures by referencing the recent discoveries of independent ‘brains’ in the human heart and the gut. The brain has about 86 billion neurons, while the gut ‘brain’ has 100 million neurons, that not only regulate digestion but influence emotions. The heart ‘brain’ has 40,000 neurons that regulate heart activity. Phrases such as taking something to heart or being heartbroken, or having a gut feeling may, after all, be true. He concludes from this scientific discovery that all people must be part of the decision-making process of an organisation just as the brain, heart and gut are for the wellbeing of the body.
Business models are not the only systems that create leaders. Everyday leaders are people who impact the lives of others by everyday actions. If we consider the essential qualities of a leader as providing direction and exercising influence, then a parent may be seen to have exceptional leadership qualities — multitasking, resolving conflicts, enabling personal growth, managing budgets and taking a long-term view. A class fellow who steps up to organise events, a receptionist who goes out of the way to assist a client, a teacher who guides students to achieve their potential are true leaders.
Some are propelled into leadership roles such as Greta Thunberg who, at the age of 15, took on the task of environmental responsibility. The Liberian mother, Leymah Gbowee, sickened by the endless war, galvanised other women to form a human chain to barricade the men inside, not allowing them to leave until peace was reached.
Not all leaders are motivated by altruism. Cult leaders such as the Japanese Asahara whose followers released poison gas in Tokyo’s subway, and the American Jim Jones, who forced his followers to commit mass suicide, deliberately built up their power through coercion and psychological manipulation. Mafia dons and gang leaders gain their power through violence and fear. Many political leaders are motivated by the promise of prestige and privilege that comes with the position rather than their role as spokespersons of the electorate.
Yet, whether leadership was sought or thrust upon them, they could only be seen as leaders if they had followers.
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 27th, 2022