Rather than start this, the third blogpost in our series of articles doing a deep-dive into leaders and leadership, with an exploration of what leaders do, we’re going to start with an even more basic question: what are leaders for?

Part 1 Part 2

Here’s why this question matters.

We saw in the last blogpost that trying to pursue a definitive list of leadership attributes (‘what are leaders like?’) seems inevitably set for failure. As an alternative route, many have argued that focusing on what leaders do will bring us the insight we need. Yet at CharacterScope we think that going this route quickly leads to a blind alley.

A glance at the leadership section of an airport bookshop shows us a few textbooks on leadership next to multiple biographies and leaders describing ‘what they did’ and why you should copy them. If you read these, you’ll find that the list of what to do becomes exhausting, long and contradictory. Leaders need to show charisma, to pull people towards themselves; they need to show great self-belief and yet have humility at the same time; they need to be dispassionate yet emotionally intelligent; they need to sustain the strategic overview yet be close to the executional detail, and so on. There are loud, impassioned leaders and quiet, reflective leaders. Bold ones and cautious ones. Leaders with extraordinarily attuned emotional sensitivity, who ring with others’ emotions like a glass, and leaders who are no more able to resonate with another person’s emotions than is a lump of wet clay.

Stepping back, we can see that the leadership literature has been focused for decades on just a few questions: ‘what are leaders like?’ and ‘what do leaders do?’ These are important questions but only become worth answering after we have asked the ‘why’ questions: ‘why do we have leaders? what are leaders for? what happens when there is no leadership? why is leadership a universal of human experience?’ To answer these questions we need to look in a different direction, into ourselves and our psychology rather than into a book.

The psychology of leaderless groups

The simplest way to answer this is to reflect on your own personal experiences of being in a group that lacks a leader or where the person appointed as leader seems unable to lead.

The experience is deeply disorienting, like we are waiting for something, are being busy, trying to be productive, but with an underlying unease that what we are doing is meaningless. We know that somebody needs to take the lead and we know we need to find a shared purpose that the group can form around.

Yet the act of taking the lead on behalf of a group, particularly a group of strangers is stressful. Not least because it immediately raises the question of whether anyone will follow our lead. And what are the consequences if people do not follow? Does it mean that my membership of the group is compromised, that I have lost my voice, my influence? What will people think of me?

When somebody else takes a lead, what do I feel? Do I feel relief that I don’t have to take the lead? Relief mixed with resentment about somebody else putting themselves above me? Do I have an inner certainty that I could do better, combined with frustration with myself that I didn’t take the lead? And when in turn someone who has resisted my lead makes their bid for leadership, will I follow, or will I resist? And what if no-one is allowed by the group to lead?

This intimate connection between leadership and followers, and the emotional undercurrents that swirl around leadership and followership provide important psychological insights. We can use these insights to get to the following key ideas.

First:

Leaders create meaning and purpose and help people connect to it.

Leadership involves creating, or discovering, meaning and purpose and then helping people connect productively to this purpose. Being a part of a group without a purpose is a sure-fire way to feel frustrated and disconnected.

Second, leaders create the conditions for others to show leadership. Or more simply:

Leaders inspire leadership from others

This second theme gives us the key insight that whilst not everyone will become a leader, leadership is for everyone, not just those who have ‘leader’ as their role. This idea, that everyone has a leadership contribution to make, goes right to the heart of the CharacterScope endeavour. We exist to help people and their organisations be more characterful, places where people work productively and flourish personally.

We’ll explore this idea further in later blogposts.

For now, take a moment to reflect on your own world. How clear are you about the purpose of the teams and groups you are a part of or lead? If everyone in the team wrote down their understanding of the team’s purpose would they write the same thing? And would it be equally meaningful and motivational for all? And how good are you and the leaders around you at inspiring leadership from your colleagues.