Watching over ... do we need a boss to keep us on track?

Watching over ... do we need a boss to keep us on track? Photo: istock

It feels as though we’re part of a culture that loves to worship heroes. The superstar CEO. The rock-star entrepreneur. The trailblazing humanitarian. The fearless editor. The visionary politician. A lot of it implies that we anxiously crave inspiring leaders to follow. But it’s worth asking the question: to what degree are leaders still relevant in a modern world?

The shift towards a leaderless society can be seen in movements like the Arab Spring and the Tea Party, neither of which have formal leaders but have amassed a significant amount of support. And during 2010 and 2011, Belgium went 541 days without a government leading the way … and yet life carried on just fine.

What’s to suggest that businesses can’t be stripped of leaders in the same fashion? Professor David Day from the University of Western Australia believes formal leadership isn’t always necessary. He tells me that’s because “leadership is a process not a position”.

This means leadership can be produced by a group of individuals who collectively set a direction and then build commitment towards that goal. “This is why people need to be prepared to step up as a leader when needed even if they are not the leader in terms of position,” he says.

In her book The End of Leadership, Harvard’s Barbara Kellerman writes that the leaders of today are weaker than the leaders of yesterday, and part of that can be attributed to the empowerment of employees.

She likens it to the traditional role played by wives. Once upon a time, they were subservient, effectively owned by their husbands within a legal system that recognised the man as the master. Now, it’s a different story, with marriages represented by much more equal relationships.

Similarly, for a long time, leaders were required to be dominant, asserting their power over obedient followers. “No longer,” writes Kellerman. “Now followers, like wives, are far sturdier than they used to be, stronger and more independent.” And that independence means they want to have a greater say.

I asked Professor Gayle Avery from the Macquarie Graduate School of Management for her views on whether leaders are necessary. “I think the point revolves around the distinction between leaders and leadership,” she said.  

Leaders are those who are appointed to a specific position of authority, usually with a job title to match, such as Team Leader or CEO. In other words: hierarchy.

Leadership, on the other hand, is what emerges when individuals are perceived by colleagues as the natural influencers of a group. Professor Avery refers to it as organic leadership, which means it has less to do with a boss ordering subordinates around, and more to do with shared decision-making.

A few months ago, The Wall Street Journal ran a profile on a company called Valve Corp, based in Washington, which prides itself on being boss-free. Its 300 employees recruit new workers, determine each other’s pay, and collectively decide who to fire. And, of course, promotions do not exist.

So, just because a team lacks a boss doesn’t mean it lacks leadership. Still, problems remain. One potential risk is the issue of accountability. When someone isn’t formally in charge, it can be difficult to figure out who’s responsible for a team’s under-performance. (You know, who to blame.)

Another downside is that if you have a leaderless team – one that fully embraces the democratisation of work – there’s the possibility of endlessly delayed decisions. That’s why it’s often said that dictatorship is the most efficient form of government. It may not be the most desired, but it’s arguably the most efficient. 

Perhaps a similar principle applies in the workplace. Or, could it be, that Tina Turner had it right all along? Maybe we don’t need another hero. You tell me.

Does every team need a leader? Leave a comment.

twitter Follow James Adonis on Twitter  @jamesadonis