Why do we need leaders?

Amazing team, 1 Leader.

Even the Red Arrows only have 1 leader.
Even the Red Arrows only have 1 leader.

There's only room for one at the top.

I've spent the past 17 years or so delivering training to all levels of people in a wide variety of organisations and "Leadership Training" has always bothered me but I've only really got to grips with why quite recently. I think the crux of the issue is this: I don't believe that any organisation actually needs more than one leader. That's not to say they don't need capable people at every level, they just don't need any more leaders.

In a race there is only one leader. A political party only has one leader. A country only usually has one leader. If there's a tie at the top of a league we go to great lengths to identify the leader. So why within an organisation do we think that having dozens of leaders is a great idea?

What is a Leader?

According to Dictionary.com a leader is defined as:

1. a person or thing that leads.

2. a guiding or directing head, as of an army, movement, or political group.

And if you were to Google the qualities of a leader you'd get a pretty long list: courage, flexibility, self awareness, integrity, confidence, enthusiasm, respect etc. But I'm pretty sure we'd want those qualities in any employee wouldn't we? So what makes leader so special?

I was at a lecture recently given by Dr David Starkey, which maybe explains why I’m in a controversial mood, and he stated that in a democratic society there can never be any truly great leaders because the qualities that make them great don’t generally make them likable, and we usually vote for ‘nice’ people. So what are the qualities of a leader that are less than nice? How about single minded determination, an utter conviction in the “my way or the highway” philosophy, a tendency to make bold decisions without full consultation and steadfastly believing in they are right even when everyone around them is telling them otherwise? I’m not sure you find many of those modules on your average Leadership Development Programme.

I’ve read several autobiographies of well known business leaders and they proudly tell of how they stubbornly went ahead and did what they believed to be right when they were specifically advised against it by those around them. Several tell us how they “wouldn’t have got where they are today if they’d paid any attention to those who told them they’d never succeed”. Is that something I should be writing a course about?

And what about the Managers?

I also strongly believe that the role of the manager has been denigrated over the years as more and more organisations have focused on "growing their own leaders". Managers are not brainless paper pushers existing only to check on attendance and authorise holidays, managers are the lifeblood of the organisation and the people who translate the leader’s vision into practical activities that achieve the results required.

Imagine your organisation is a chauffeur driven car. The leader is the person sat in the back seat with the map deciding where the car should be going, the manager is the person behind the wheel making it happen. And managers shouldn’t be afraid to challenge the leader and let them know when they don’t have enough fuel to get to where the leader wants them to be.

I’m not suggesting that leaders are bad people, though I am suggesting most of them would probably make lousy managers. I’ve met several leaders of large organisations in my time and most of them are not easy company; they’re fantastic at rabble rousing the troops at conferences but not so great at chit chat or dealing with practicalities.

Leadersheep?

Need to do as they're told.
Need to do as they're told.

So, what do organisations need?

Imagine Virgin with 3 Richard Bransons, or Amstrad with half a dozen Lord Sugars. Chaos. What these great leaders cleverly do is surround themselves with brilliant managers who can translate their visions into action, challenge when appropriate, but not try to wrestle their crown from them.

What an organisation needs is one great leader at its helm and a gaggle of motivated, emotionally intelligent, hands on managers who can make it all happen. I did think of calling these people Leadersheep because they need to possess many so called “leadership skills” except one – at the end of the day they need to be able to knuckle down and do what they’re told, even if they disagree with the direction it’s taking the organisation. Their only other option would be to resign and I’m sure we can all recall high level board walkouts when two would-be leaders have clashed, like I said, there’s only room for one true leader within any organisation.


Over to you.

Well that’s me done. I’m not controversial all that often but leadership training is something that has been bugging me for a long time. I’m really interested to hear other views on the subject and am open to having my mind changed with a well reasoned argument, although I should warn you, my mum says I’m third generation stubborn, and you wouldn’t want to argue with her.

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Comments 11 comments

mickelarr 5 years ago

Thought provoking. As a "leader" in my organization I'm constantly trying to make a case for empowerment. Unfortunately, big companies still think bureaocrocy is the easiet way to manage people. Herding sheep is easy. Encouraging people to be their own shepards is much more complex.


Beth Pipe profile image

Beth Pipe 5 years ago from Cumbria, UK Author

I absolutely agree - but bloomin' good managers can empower people. The 'leaders' at the top of an organisation are often not particularly good with people and that's why they need well trained managers to get the best out of everyone.


LadyLyell profile image

LadyLyell 5 years ago from George, South Africa

This is a very interesting read!


alocsin profile image

alocsin 4 years ago from Orange County, CA

I have mixed feelings about the value of world leaders. On the one hand, it's nice to have ones with vision. And then you think about the Italians who have been doing fine without a leader for decades. Voting this Up and Interesting.


Beth Pipe profile image

Beth Pipe 4 years ago from Cumbria, UK Author

Thank you for your comments. It's not a straightforward topic and I'm really interested in everyone's views.


Summer 4 years ago

Uhh leaders are made not born and that's all i have to say :D


nick 4 years ago

why only one leader why not more so you have more than one way to go life not just the way someone makes you go


Lishank profile image

Lishank 4 years ago

More leaders would mean various leadership styles which in turn could benefit employees and increase productivity.


Beth Pipe profile image

Beth Pipe 4 years ago from Cumbria, UK Author

Thanks for the comments - great to see different points of view. It's really not a simple subject and there are no easy answers.


SidKemp profile image

SidKemp 3 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

Thank you for a truly thoughtful and thought-provoking article. My own views are more complex - possibly too complex. I see leadership as a quality in every person. And I see the dominant-leader type (where there can be only one) as one type of leader. And when there is that type of leader, yes, there can be only one. But there are also cooperative leadership models (rare in business, but 3M is a success, and some companies, such as Xerox, use consensus-based decision-making). If you're really interested in other views, you might read my hubs The Four Types of Leaders; Women in Leadership; and Leadership and Management: What's the difference. I'll link from my hub to yours, too.


Beth Pipe profile image

Beth Pipe 3 years ago from Cumbria, UK Author

Thank you for your comment. It's really such a complex area and I guess that's why there are so many books on the subject. I'll definitely take a look at the other hubs you've suggested and I really appreciate the link.

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