Very often when one is appointed to a leadership position of progressive responsibility, it doesn’t take long to realize that there is a big difference between leading leaders and leading followers. As a front-line leader, you interact primarily with the followers you are supposed to lead. The work you is largely the “technical” or day-to-day work of your organization or department.
As a leader of leaders, however, your primary interaction is with leaders, not followers, who behave very differently than followers. In addition, as a leader of leaders, your work is largely strategic – coaching, planning, taking strategic actions – not the day-to-day work you were accustomed to do. In fact, if you are still doing the same exact work as a leader of leaders as you did when you were a front-line leader, then something is wrong (i.e., not delegating properly or you have not developed your leaders and staff).
Similarly, leadership as a front-line leader in certain contexts such as an academic department chair, managing partner of a law firm, or leader in a volunteer organization is akin to leading leaders, not followers. That is because followers who are highly educated, highly talented, or wealthy have more power and therefore, greater autonomy and independence than ordinary followers. Volunteers have the greatest power of all as they can always, well, leave the organization whenever they chose, or worse, stay and block your initiatives.
Remarkably, there are few books that make distinctions between leading leaders and followers. One such book is Leading Leaders: How to Manage Smart, Talented, Rich, and Powerful People by Jeswald Salacuse, which I highly recommend (many of the ideas in this essay are directly from or influenced by this great book).
Along the same lines, the typical leadership genre of military leaders, sports figures, or even CEOs as leadership role models is better suited for leading followers (than leading leaders) because these contexts usually fit within the typical command and control organization paradigm. In contrast, to learn how to lead leaders, it is best to look for contexts such as shared governance in academic leadership, multi-polar like multinational diplomacy, or with leading peers at roughly the same level like legislative politics or volunteer organizations.
This essay is primarily concerned with understanding the primary differences or challenges experienced in leading leaders or independent followers, leaving it to future essays to describe some strategies and solutions. As will be described in future essays, the key skill is learning contextual leadership. Creative leaders must posses strong contextual leadership skills to provide effective creative leadership.
Leading leaders has a clear tie to creative leadership. There are seven distinct thinking skills (diagnostic, visionary, strategic, ideational, evaluative, contextual, and tactical thinking) involved in the creative process and creative leadership process. Leading leaders requires significant skill as a “contextual” thinker, with supporting strengths in strategic and tactical thinking. Contextual thinking involves distinct skill sets like political skills; sensitivity to people and environment (i.e., social intelligence); conflict resource, negotiation and mediation skills; and interpersonal skills (i.e., emotional intelligence).
An otherwise strong leader with weak contextual skills will find that their grand visions and plans will often shipwreck on the hard rocks of context each and every time. This is often why some particularly “visionary” leaders fail – too much vision and too little contextual understanding and sub-par implementation.
Likewise, leaders with strong contextual skills (think of Bill Clinton, Mitt Romney, George H. Bush), may be accused of “flip-flopping” or lacking conviction, but they also get things done by understanding their respective contexts and adapting accordingly. In addition, they are able to build coalitions out of very diverse followers (like Bush in the first Gulf war) and thereby obtain their objectives whereas their rigid, ideologue counterparts tend to go down in flames.
Leaders who fail to adapt to their context (like George W. Bush and President Obama), are either unable to pass their agenda, or when they do, it makes people mad as their agenda is very unpopular and out-of-touch with the needs and wants of many of their followers (like Obama’s healthcare plan or the unpopular second Iraq war). In addition, these leaders are perceived as being unilateral, arbitrary, arrogant, divisive, and ultimately, ineffective and unsuccessful as leaders.
A strong understanding of context is particularly important when leading leaders or otherwise powerful or talented individuals. This is because leaders and talented individuals, unlike average followers, both have individual agendas and the power and ability to assert them vigorously, causing potential contextual landmines you must detect and disarm, or avoid altogether. Failing to understand the interests of the people that you lead is a key reason for failure as a leader of leaders.
Specific Challenges of Leading Leaders
Newly minted leaders often confuse two key concepts – power and authority. Authority can be defined as a legitimate right to influence people based on one’s position inside an organization. Authority is often derived from something larger than itself. A CEO gets authority from the board of directors, who gets authority from the shareholders that in turn receive authority by virtue of their shareholder status combined with their state law charter (articles of incorporation).
In contrast, power is the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others and may have little to do with authority. There are at least nine sources of power – position (authority), positive reinforcement (rewards), punishment, charisma (likeability), vision (the “cause”), relationship (trust and history), coaching (personal investment), persuasion, and expertise.
While more authority generally equates with more power, this is not always the case. Some of the most influential (powerful) leaders ever – Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa, Princess Diana – have had little to no formal authority over their followers, yet they had great power (or influence).
In addition, authority (even dictators have some limits to their authority – unless they conquer the free world) is by nature subject to certain formal and informal limits. Thus, while as CEO, you may hire and fire at will, a series of bad hiring decisions would lead your board of directors to question your leadership ability, leading to reduced power (loss of respect from others) and eventually less authority – they may fire you, or otherwise limit your authority. Likewise, some leaders might have limited ability to hire and fire in that they can only make recommendations that are approved by others.
Authority-based power also usually includes a certain degree of power to reward or punish. However, whether authority based power will include a lot or little power to reward/punish will depend on the organization. For instance, tenured professors and state employees generally have certain protections in place that makes punishing or firing them difficult or impossible, meaning their leaders will have little ability to influence them in at least this respect.
Authority-Based Power is Woefully Inadequate
Leaders often mistakenly assume that people will follow them because of their authority. And people will – if they feel it is in their interest to do so. However, when followers or leaders have substantial power, authority-based power is less effective, and thus, they don’t have to follow you. In addition, high-talent followers or leaders are less impacted by punishments because they have more options and are thus, are less threatened by punishments though they still might be enticed by some rewards.
Some illustrations will help. As department chair of a higher education department, you are having a problem with an uncooperative faculty member – who defies your authority at every point – refusing to attend meetings, ignores your emails, and openly speaks badly about you to the other faculty members. Yet you can’t do anything about it – the faculty member (besides being tenured), is the leader in his specific sub-field, and he brings in tons of grant money. The dean would never approve a termination, let alone a reprimand.
As an assistant pastor in your church, you work with the other leaders in your organization. They generally support you (at least in theory), until that is … they don’t. Even though you may have more insight as to what the organization needs to move forward, they may not see it that way. In fact, as they are volunteers in your organization (as are you), you have no real authority over them whatsoever. Thus, in effect, your authority by virtue of your position is essential nil. The only power you have comes from the other sources of power, namely your relationships with them and your ability to persuade and organize the efforts of different volunteers.
The key difference between leading leaders and followers is that leaders possess more power than followers, and thus, are more difficult to lead. For instance, individual leaders often have their own followers, resources, relationships, expertise, internal and external networks, and so forth. In fact, sometimes the leaders you will lead will, in fact, have more power than you do. In addition, leaders also have more options – a large social network, education, money – and thus can change jobs or find better opportunities elsewhere, which makes them less deferential to your authority. You can’t afford to lose them, and they know it.
As a result, they are less likely to follow you just because of your authority. In addition, as they likely also possess expertise and/or charisma themselves, they are less likely to be swayed by compliments, inspiring speeches, and so forth. Further, as they may have many followers of their own, they will not follow you if your recommended course of action will hurt their followers or lessen their personal standing among their followers.
Future essays on this topic will describe the various strategies to employ when leading leaders (or highly talented followers), including the different sources of power, and how to use them in a positive, ethical fashion.
About the Author
As a leader of leaders at church, and a front-line leader at work, I have noticed several things about myself as a creative leader. I am very strong in regards to my visionary and ideational skills. I should be good at, but often lack patience with, diagnostic, strategic, and evaluative thinking, as my strong bias towards action causes me to under use my analytical skills. My weaknesses are in regards to contextual and tactical thinking as a creative leader. Some improvement in this area comes with time, but I need to devote more study to this area. As a visionary, I tend to live in my head (it is an interesting place!), not paying enough attention to the world and people around me. Perhaps I should marry a socially savy woman, to help compensate for, and help me improve, this particular weakness. H2 find a socially savy wife (hopefully that is good at, and actually likes, throwing dinner parties)?