The key question facing humanity is whether we are wise enough and smart enough to survive our success as a species.

The answer to that question is likely to be a definitive thumbs down! At least while we continue to interpret the phenomenon of leading as previously defined by the most influential business schools and large consulting firms. Much of what goes on under the pretext of leadership is utterly apocryphal. And as far as I can see nothing more authentic, or effective, is taking its place – which means we are in trouble.

The art of leading, the practice of leadership, and the ‘development’ of potential leaders are all interpreted in much the same way as they were over a century ago. Prevailing definitions of leadership remain obstinately intact – immune from alternative models. As a consequence, the mainstream assumptions concerning leaders have not changed one iota. Nor have our hopes regarding what we expect leaders to deliver. 

We are still attracted to the notion that ‘the leader’ is somehow exceptional – typically Anglo-Saxon, a male of intrepid character, appointed or elected to pursue bold goals, his confidence and charm embodied in the number of followers he inspires. Recently, somewhat reluctantly, we have notionally admitted women to that elite club. At the same time, we have diligently avoided promoting a more diverse range of leadership qualities (omitting more feminine traits in particular) lest they intrude on the myth of masculine virility and vision. In other words we expect women leaders to act much like men, which actually defeats the goal.

Although our technologies have evolved dramatically over the past century, changing almost every aspect of our lives in an expanding parade of innovative enterprise, our beliefs about governance and the exercise of power are rooted in antiquated myths and obsolete models. The ‘great leader’ syndrome is one of those myths. And a dangerous one at that.

We still desperately cry out for leadership. But what do we really mean by that? And why, when we actually get closer to what we yearn for, does there seem to be such a deficiency of moral fortitude – what might be referred to as working towards the public good – aimed at benefitting humanity as a whole rather than fragments of self-interest? Surely there is more to life than making money, growing the economy, and grinding competitors into the dust? Combative in principle, the old model perpetuates separation, cosmetic quarrels and intolerance at a time when empathy, cooperation and concord are urgently needed.

When reviewing the current literature on leadership I am dismayed by the ease with which popular anecdotal evidence is uncritically accepted and used to refute almost any challenge to convention. 

The idea of a leader needing to be psychologically and intellectually literate, together with positioning the work of leading within a broader (global) context is not new. But it has the virtue of pointing out obvious flaws in the inherited paradigm – particularly the constraints, competitive culture, negotiated value, process myopia, and narrow, self-serving goals, all of which are expected (and possibly acceptable) in a management context but run contrary to effective leadership. By challenging preconceptions, particularly Western-inspired notions, of what constitutes effective leadership, and examining this phenomenon from outside and beyond familiar constraints, we are able to lift our thinking out of the quicksand of material banality.

The universal appeal for more effective, even inspirational leadership, is invariably a plea for change and renewal. It is not, nor indeed has it ever been, a call for incremental improvement or preservation of the status quo. That is the territory and role of management. Sadly most of the literature on leadership, including assumptions used as the basis for developing leaders in corporate life, is still framed and comprehended as an advanced management discipline. The truth is that many so-called leaders, designated as such because of their manifest or symbolic status in a specific entity, are managers in all but name. There is no shame in the separation of manager from leader. The impulse to take action is at variance. Besides, they enact profoundly different operating modes and behavioural ethics. 

Management demands profound knowledge of a system, timely information, and a range of decision-making skills and people-centered competencies that can be learnt and applied in particular situations. Necessitating a professional and disciplined manner, both aptitude and appetite for managing are nurtured by experience and developed over time. The seeds of leadership are to be found in a deep-seated yearning to change things for the better, which is a desire to be found deep in the soul of every human being. Here the aptitude and appetite can be triggered in an instant, emerging fully-formed. Furthermore the compulsion to lead may need no conventional development as such, but rather apposite conditions.

One of the most difficult issues facing humanity is that we are subjected to management on the pretext that this is leadership. Nothing could be further from the truth. Politicians are out of touch in a field where leaders are in demand. Mystified by the complexity they find in the world, their recourse is to rebuff the unthinkable and the unpalatable – instead spending their time patching up the present in forlorn attempts to avert our gaze from their ineptitude. Meanwhile corporate imposters posture and preen with all the narcissism of canaries in a gilded cage. 

Both camps are dogged by fear. Fear of change – except possibly in tiny increments. Fear of a future over which they have no control. Fear of collaboration. Fear of any alternatives to those that are comforting and familiar. Fear of being found wanting. Fear of admitting these truths.

Admittedly the impulse to lead is often represented as the desire to achieve a vision or end goal. But that is misleading. It is actually much more than that, beginning as a subconscious reframing of reality within the context of our relationship with others and the environment. 

In a sense, the urge to lead is deeply coevolutionary. Only the early tasks of interior inquiry and incubation can be done in isolated solitude. 

Consciously seeking an expansion of one’s own moral code, for example, invariably leads to insights – alternate ways of seeing and thinking about reality – that are more advanced and seem to make better sense. In this way, a new intelligence of belonging and purpose starts forming. Gradually alternative possibilities begin to appear. Some fresh ideas are incubated, possibly over many months or even years. Others are cast aside. Though hidden in full view, decisions take a different shape. Ultimately different actions are taken and at that point the individual leader becomes both visible and redundant. With others engaged change, once thought improbable, now becomes inevitable. 

Because new behaviours are the first visible signs of our intention to change they are often mistaken for the original impulse. This is a huge error. It goes some way to explain why we structure leadership development programs around behavioural characteristics. But it does not excuse the fact that, by and large, visible behaviours are the least suitable starting place for appreciating the evolution of leadership motives. 

While actions remain the visible tip of the ontological iceberg, what occurs in the deepest recesses of our consciousness, as a preliminary reaction to external stimuli, is a vastly more accurate guide to our intentions. Thus, authentic leadership development originates in the undetected liminal moments of the evolving mind. And although the impulse for change can be sparked by one, or possibly two individuals sharing their ideas, the actual praxis of leading is inevitably a collective, shared phenomenon. It can only result from the coherent objectives and actions of many. 

The ambient ecosystem is therefore a significant factor, if frequently downplayed. In fact, all leadership is context specific – it arises from explicit needs within a group that are not being met by other means. And it invariably results in second-order change, unlike most first-order improvements we see from managers.

Although the conventional ‘great leader’ syndrome is one most popularly associated with theories of contingency (the ability to control a situation) or charisma (the ability to influence and inspire), these are actually more associated with great management. The most effective leaders arise from, and merge with, their social group, often to the extent that they become indiscernible (to outsiders) from others in the group. 

This notion of social identity explains a lot about the apparent vacuum in leadership today. For example, if leaders distance themselves from society, by crafting an elite persona, by feigning superiority in some way, or isolating their thoughts in a bubble, they risk resorting to old-style leadership models that have been proven to be the problem. 

This is why authentic leadership is a shared and highly emergent phenomenon, intimately entangled with the dynamics of the social ecosystem in which it flourishes. It cannot usually be planned, unlike strategic management which demands thorough preparation, although its outcomes can be predicted with high levels of certainty. 

Perhaps these are the reasons we still cry out for leadership. As long as designated leaders continue to manage, rather than to lead, our cries will continue to echo into the void and the massive changes we actually need in the world will elude us.