A Conversation on the Nature of Leadership

As a topic of inquiry and self-help, leadership has been covered from many angles and by many disciplines. To learn more about leadership, former Kettering Foundation research assistant, Jack Becker, sat down at a recent Kettering Foundation research exchange with Tina Nabatchi, Martín Carcasson, and Jeffrey Nielson. All three have written either directly or peripherally on leadership. Their conversation spans the nature of leadership, ideas for reform, claims to new thinking, and how we can better manage demands for high-functioning leaders and organizations.

JACK: You’ve each written on leadership in different ways: for Tina, part of your work has been thinking about how leadership is driving collaboration. And for Martín, much of your work has made the case for how the Center for Public Deliberation and similar centers can lead in improving public discourse. Jeff, you have written extensively on leadership, most recently on how we can and should deconstruct our dominant approach to how we understand the topic.

JEFF: Yes, my recent work is on deconstructing the supermeme of leadership. It was inspired in part by David Bohm’s book, On Dialogue (1996). I recall this line where he says, and I’m paraphrasing, all of society is pious to the belief we can’t function without leaders. Well, maybe we can. That was the moment when I began to think about why we think we need leaders, what dynamic leaders and leadership creates, and what would it be like to not have leaders. How would we manage ourselves?

What I challenge in my work is this idea that we have to have leader-based organizations and communities. That the only way to manage ourselves is to appoint a rank-based leader and allow someone to monopolize information, control decision making, and tell us what to do. It’s that kind of leadership model that I’m challenging.

TINA: When I think about leadership, and especially in the leader’s role in driving collaboration, I see multiple roles leaders can be playing. We have to expand our thinking beyond this “great-man” theory of one person in charge, directing and ordering. We have to think about cultivating and empowering people to take on different aspects of work at different times. And as things are in any collaborative and participatory process, the needs of the group and the needs of the moment will change. And we need to be able to empower people to be able to step up and move forward.

JEFF: That’s exactly what I’m working to create. And my thought is, that whenever we use the word leadership, we immediately create a division of persons—we have leaders and followers. And we automatically have a division of power. Regardless of your good intentions, this is going to inhibit and impede the process of that initiative and effort. When we use the language of leadership we are immediately defining someone as having power and someone as not having power. And that relationship is quite inevitably of unequal power, and you can’t have collaboration with relationships of unequal power.

TINA: I would tend to agree with that, but I would say, for example, that if I have the skills to do data analysis and you don’t, well then you would follow my lead. Whereas if you have skills in community organizing and I don’t, I would follow your lead. I do think that leader-follower dynamic still exists. There is a power dynamic that still exists, and we are never going to eliminate that. Instead, what’s important is accepting that people have power and skills in some areas and not in others.

JEFF: Certainly I’m not saying we should get away from the professional roles of doctors or accountants or lawyers. We all have professional skills and occupations. But in terms of how we manage the strategy, the tactics, the operations, the resources, and the people themselves, that should be in a leaderless way. So if you have greater skills in a particular area, you take on the stewardship of a certain area in an organization or community. I call that using rotational stewardship positions. But as soon as we call someone a leader we’ve set up a dichotomy that creates unethical outcomes.

MARTÍN: A lot of the work of the center is focused on helping coalitions and organizations think about the tension between the top-down versus the bottom-up components of leadership. For example, we are working with United Way to help them manage that tension. A lot of the nonprofit organizations they work with are bottom-up, meaning more grassroots, but with all the collective impact stuff there’s recognition that there’s not enough money and perhaps too many bottom-up organizations recreating the wheel and siloing themselves, leading to a loss of efficiency.

We are finding there is a realization that we need top-down and bottom-up forms, and we need the strengths of both. Part of what I’m doing is helping organizations think through what happens when top-down works well and what happens when bottom-up works well. I think a good leader recognizes this and thinks through how to manage that tension.

JACK: So in your work, Jeff, are there specific terms, such as rotational stewardship, that you have adopted?

JEFF: I contrast rank-based organizations and communities with what I call peer-based. Every community and organization has to be managed. The rank-based management vehicles use permanent leadership positions arranged hierarchically. So what I’m trying to create are peer-based communities where in place of leadership positions you have peer councils, in place of fixed job assignments you have rotational stewardship positions, and in place of hierarchy you have mentoring. That is the different management model that replaces leadership as many people imagine it.

JACK: How much of the change that’s needed is institutional and organizational, and how much is cultural?

JEFF: If you decide you’re going to become peer-based and you don’t make systemic changes in your decision-making processes, the change will fail. Cultural, social, organizational and individual mindset changes will be needed.

JACK: Are there places in the world where peer-based is the norm?

JEFF: For the vast majority of human existence that’s how humans operated in hunter-gatherer societies. Kettering has done some work of its own examining the history of some forms of collaboration. It has a deep history in humanity. It’s only been since the Neolithic revolution and the emergence of settled and village-based life that we’ve had rank-based, leader-based communities, and that’s only been for around 10,000 years. So for 60,000 years we were peer-based. We have it in our genetic abilities. We just have to change the environment from which we collaborate.

MARTÍN: So from that argument, which I think is not unreasonable at all, humans are naturally more collaborative and deliberative. But when I look at all the brain science now around cognitive dissonance and selective listening, I can make the argument that we are inherently anti-deliberative, and we want things to be simplistic.

JEFF: We are actually both. We have the cognitive capacity to be peer-based or rank-based. And so what it depends on is our environment. Right now, rank-based propensities flourish.

JACK: Tina, in public administration we are clearly rank-based and hierarchical. This is especially true at the federal level. What do you think are the prospects for new leadership thinking within public administration?

TINA: I think some hierarchy is actually necessary when you have large organizations that are trying to accomplish huge tasks, such as in a large government agency. There has got to be some kind of systemic order given. And right now that’s given through hierarchy. I don’t see that changing anytime soon. What I do see changing that relates to leadership are the ways people are working with each other across boundaries, across sectors, across organizations, and across jurisdictions, and recognizing who’s bringing what to the table and validating and accepting those skills and abilities over known personal skills and abilities, stepping up when they have what it takes to step up, and then stepping back when they need to let others lead. And I think it’s got to be this kind of give-and-take leadership among different people that leads to a new era of collaboration. I don’t have as many challenges with leadership in name or practice. I think leaders are necessary.

MARTÍN: In our training we talk about the idea of a facilitator. Facilitators do lots of things; I think it’s the same idea with a leader. Sometimes the facilitator needs to be very top-down, perhaps we have a crisis or don’t have much time; in a sense, our best shot is having a benevolent dictator. Sometimes a leader is going to be a much more facilitative leader. So I think having leadership skills doesn’t mean you are this one kind of leader, but instead you need to have this broad skill set and then depending on the situation you need to be able to apply the right skill.

TINA: I think that’s right, and there’s this whole emerging literature on situational leadership that looks at the importance of understanding which particular lens needs to be applied to a particular situation. The best leaders are the ones that are able to see and react to the situation.

Tina Nabatchi, PhD, is an associate professor of public administration and international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University. Though her scholarship is varied, the unifying theme is one of democratic governance in public administration. Her work has been featured in numerous venues, and she has two forthcoming books.

Martín Carcasson, PhD, is an associate professor of communication studies at Colorado State University and the founder and director of the CSU Center for Public Deliberation (CPD). The CPD serves as an impartial resource for the community, dedicated to enhancing local democracy in Northern Colorado through improved public communication, community problem solving, and collaborative decision making. 

Jeffrey Nielsen, PhD, is an adjunct instructor of philosophy at Westminster College, a program coordinator for the Utah Democracy Project at Utah Valley University, a blogger, founder of Literary Suite Publishing, consultant, and author of two books, most recently being, Deconstructing the SUPERMEME of Leadership: A Brief Invitation to Creating Peer-Based Communities & Leaderless Organizations (2014).

Jack Becker is a former Kettering Foundation research assistant. He currently works for Denver Public Schools Office of Family and Community Engagement. He can be reached at jackabecker@gmail.com. Follow him on twitter: @jackabecker