Myths of Leadership

Matt Ridley’s The Evolution of Everything is an interesting and generally well-written perspective on the prevalence and power of “bottom-up” or emergent evolution as compared to “top-down” and directed change.

It is my experience that the most important aspect of leadership is poorly done and the least important aspect of leadership is over-blown. The least important aspect? The focus on leaders as driving innovation and change.

I appreciate from where this sentiment arises. Ridley calls this mindset the “great man theory of history” wherein it is the special individuals who make and alter the course of history through their deeds and actions. In business terms, it is the charismatic CEO/visionary who disrupts entire industries and companies with their vision and leads organizations to greatness.

CEOs are prone to endorsing this mindset because it, in part, justifies a great deal of the royal prerogatives and remuneration that they enjoy in many if not most organizations. Consultants and gurus also benefit from the existence of this paradigm. CEOs and other “C- Suite” execs have larger budgets than frontline workers and so services and programs aimed at improving their effectiveness as innovative, “design-thinking” leaders is convenient to the consultants but also flattering to the executives.

But Ridley’s thesis — one that I support — is that the vast majority of innovation is emergent, that is, bottom-up and not the result of top-down design, centralized interventions, or the guiding-hand of visionary top leaders. Part of this thesis is that innovation is far less out-of-the-blue and disruptive than we may think, and that it is almost always the results of many, many small and unseen ideas, actions, and innovations that accumulate to make the resulting innovation and change happen organically.

As humans, our love of narrative (along with a dose of marketing) often results in the development of creation myths that put a solitary genius-leader at the heart of the change. It is much easier and dramatic to credit Steve Jobs alone for something than it is to muck around in the minute details of the 1,001 things others did over the course of many years, in addition to Jobs, who, make no mistake, also played his role, but was far from a tablet-bearing figure who emerged from the mountain top with an iPod in his hands.

The top-down, leader-driven story of change is the part that I think is over-blown. The most important aspect of leadership and the part that is usually poorly done? Establishing a culture where emergent change can and does occur and that leads to innovations that outstrip, over time, any top-down interventions by the “top of the pyramid.” This is usually poorly done because it flies in the face of the typical leadership model. Yes, there is lip-service paid to empowerment of employees, but in reality it is often superficial in nature. Decision-making authority is fiercely held and consolidated by senior managers who often fear loss of control.

Lean thinking involves not just, among other things, the decentralization of activities in order to provide and create value where and when needed, but more importantly requires the decentralization of problem-solving. Decentralization of problem-solving, if it is to solve problems of any importance, also requires the decentralization of decision-making, and this is the crux of the matter. The real value of a CEO and his or her leadership team is to design, build and foster the conditions by which innovation is driven primarily from the bottom-up in response to real-world and local conditions and challenges and yet able to work within a few key guard rails that are concerned with issues such as safety and that also quickly communicates emergent innovations throughout the organization.

Creating this type of organization does need leaders but it rarely happens if the leadership of an organization spend most of their time trying to be the driver and source of innovation themselves.