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Leadership for the Twenty-First Century


Leadership is a tricky word to define. That’s why, in Leadership for the Twenty-First Century, Joseph Rost takes more than two-thirds of the book to try to define it – and probably still doesn’t get it quite right. You might expect that I wouldn’t be a fan of a book that spends so much time on something that most would agree should be relegated to a foreword or, at the very most, an introductory chapter. However, the story is more complicated than that. There’s a lot of wisdom in looking back and realizing how poorly we’ve defined the term and the issues that this has caused.

Rost walks through decades of different perspectives on what leadership is and wades back in the waters of time to try to find the root of what leadership is. He believes that you can only work on improving something once you know what it is. As it comes to leadership, few people have stopped to ponder what it really is. Most have some vague sense that leadership is management.

Management and Leadership

When you have managers enter a room for a leadership meeting, it’s just another day in the office, and, at the same time, it comingles the terms “management” and “leadership.” If your managers are the ones doing the leading, then how are the terms different? Unfortunately, when used in this way, they’re likely not different. Leadership loses its special meaning when it’s just a synonym of management. Management, too, loses its distinct meaning when anything considered leadership can be lumped in. It’s not that one is more necessary or better than the other – just that they’re different.

Some would argue that leadership is successful management, but that lays down the gauntlet as to what successful management is. Considering that the same managers for Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and Lego were called successful during one period of the company and unsuccessful during the next using the same strategies, were they leading all along or not? The answer is perhaps that we’re looking at the wrong measures. Richard Hackman in Collaborative Intelligence suggests that you can’t look purely at output measures. You must consider how the team is working together to know whether they’re effective or not. Perhaps leadership has the same qualities, which transcend short-term output and lead to longer-term goals. At the same time, without clear criteria, leadership takes on mythical properties.

Myths and Legends

Great leadership is the stuff of legends. People able to lead were like the knights of the round table, slaying dragons and saving the land. We lifted good leaders on pedestals and gave them massive salaries commensurate with the value we felt they could bring to organizations. This myth-making created CEOs whose income is orders of magnitude above those who worked below them.

Whether or not a CEO deserved the salary and bonuses they received isn’t the point. We saw the CEO as the chief leader and therefore worthy of enormous compensation packages. No one bothered to question whether the CEO was just lucky in their last role or whether they really had something special. No one bothered to pay attention to whether anyone was following them or not. We idealized the leader into something that couldn’t possibly be true, and no one was willing to speak out about “the emperor’s new clothes.”


The problem is that no one wants to admit that the CEO isn’t a mythical leader who always wins the day. We live in a probabilistic world. (See The Halo Effect.) Because of that, we must realize that a CEO may – or may not – be able to lead an organization through the current times. Some CEOs will have a better probability of success, but there are no guarantees.

Because there’s no way to know what the forces are and whether the CEO’s skills will be enough to overcome the barriers placed in their way – and there’s no way to know how luck is going to fall – we must take a risk and guess at success, and we don’t like to do that. It’s easier to believe in a myth than it is to accept the difficult reality that leadership – even good leadership – isn’t always successful.

Leaders and Followers

Rost’s essential point is that leadership isn’t and cannot be expressed in a single person. Rost’s point is that leadership is the name for the relationship between a leader and a follower. You can’t extract a leader and transplant them to someplace else and expect that they’ll immediately be followed. There are behaviors and things that can be done for a leader to encourage followers – but the followers still get to choose whether they want to or not.

By refocusing the conversation about leadership to one of relationships, Rost avoids the trap of creating a mythical leader and simultaneously recognizes the criticality of relationships and persuasion. Leaders don’t preside over followers, they join in a relationship with them, where the followers are persuaded to participate for the betterment of their collective goal.

Persuasion and Coercion

Persuasion is getting someone to do something that you want – or that your group collectively wants – without the use of force or threat. If you must threaten someone, then it’s coercion. However, the challenge is that coercion is not in the explicit threat, but it is also in the implicit threat. While no one might say that you must do this, or you’ll be fired, the implication is all too often well understood.

Persuasion makes people WANT to do something, and coercion makes it clear they MUST do something – or suffer the consequences. A person who is being coerced lives in fear, and fear isn’t good for creative tasks. (See Drive and Creative Confidence for more.)

Four Essential Elements

Rost summarizes his perspective on leadership with four essential elements:

  1. A relationship based on influence
  2. Leaders and followers are the people in this relationship
  3. Leaders and followers intend real changes
  4. Leaders and followers develop mutual purposes

Effectively this describes the parties in the relationship, the structure, and the purpose. There are, however, some nuances.

There’s no need for a person to always remain the leader and others always the followers. Co-led and self-organizing groups are OK. In Rost’s view, both the follower and the leader are active participants in the relationship. If someone isn’t active, they’re neither leader nor follower.

The intent to create real change is difficult, because the scope and scale of the change is very different. Leaders and followers may seek to solve world hunger or merely satisfy their hunger for a while. They share purposes – view of the world in the future – rather than specific, tangible goals. They may not always agree on the exact path moving forward, but they agree on the destination they’re trying to reach.

Direct and Indirect Effectiveness

Being a leader means expending energy in the development and maintenance of the leadership relationship. That energy necessarily must come from somewhere else. That “somewhere” is often personal, direct productivity. A leader sacrifices their individual output in the service of the greater good of maintaining the relationships.

Done correctly, the productivity of the followers drives the goals forward faster than would ever be possible by an individual contributor. A large or even moderate group of followers with a reasonable degree of alignment can be a powerful force.

Still, a leader must be able to accept the fact that they feel like they’re personally getting fewer things done – in service of the greater good.

Leadership as a Transformational Process

If leadership is different than management, then what makes it different? One consideration is that it’s transformational. What is happening is more than the direct results that are being achieved. Instead, the people in the relationship – both the leader and the follower – grow and become more than they were. Not only does leadership transform the objective reality through results, but, more importantly for the long term, the people involved transform.

In the context of Rost’s work – based from Burns work – is that the transformation moves the people to “higher levels of motivation and morality.” While this is interesting, I’m not sure that it quite captures transformational leadership. Motivation is a slippery topic, because it’s not single dimensional. It ebbs and flows, and it is very situationally-dependent. Whether we’re looking at our willpower to push through something (see Willpower) or hope that something will get better through our efforts (see The Psychology of Hope), motivation isn’t a fixed thing.

Morality is its own sticky mess. The Righteous Mind places morality on six foundations that have differing ratios – but not real levels. Moral Disengagement wanders through the ways that we lose our moral bearings without indicating ways that we transform into more moral creatures.

I tend to think of the transformation of leadership in terms of increasing our capacity. This carefully side-steps our direct results and acknowledges that someone who has been through transformational leadership has a greater ability to do things in the future.

What Others Are Saying

With all the discussion about the research Rost had done – and the research that the people he was quoting had done – I thought it would be interesting to review the leadership books that I’ve read and taken notes on to see what they had to say about leadership. Just as Rost found, I found that some of the books that I put into the leadership category didn’t define it – a fact that had escaped my notice while reading the book. However, I was able to pull quotes from my notes for several. There are listed below in alphabetical order by the primary (first) author’s last name:

  • Organizational Traps (Argyris) – “Effective leaders are still seen as exhibiting four competencies, namely, adaptive capacity, engaging others by creating shared meaning, voice, and integrity.”
  • The Wisdom of Walt (Barnes) – “Leadership is not about managing things as they are today. Leadership is about transforming reality into your vision for a better tomorrow.”
  • Coachbook (Bergquist & Mura) – “Effective leaders, therefore, must be ‘not only concerned with what is but also with what might be.’”
  • Creativity, Inc. (Catmull & Wallace) – “When companies are successful, it is natural to assume that this is a result of leaders making shrewd decisions. Those leaders go forward believing that they have figured out the key to building a thriving company. In fact, randomness and luck played a key role in that success.”
  • Good to Great (Collins) – “…these leaders are a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.”
  • The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Covey) – “Leadership deals with the top line: What are the things I want to accomplish?”
  • Extraordinary Minds (Gardner) – “…influence occurs significantly in a set of exchanges between the minds of leaders and the minds of followers.”
  • Tribes (Godin) – “A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea”
  • What Got You Here Won’t Get You There (Goldsmith & Reiter) – “Becoming a better leader (or a better person) is a process, not an event.”
  • Primal Leadership (Goleman et al.) – “…leader creates resonance—a reservoir of positivity that frees the best in people. At its root, then, the primal job of leadership is emotional.”
  • Originals (Grant) – “As entrepreneur Derek Sivers put it, ‘The first follower is what transforms a lone nut into a leader.’”
  • Servant Leadership (Greenleaf) – “I believe that the essential quality that sets servant-leaders apart from others is that they live by their conscience—the inward moral sense of what is right and what is wrong.”
  • Influencer (Grenny et al.) – “We call this ability to create changes in human behavior influence and the people who do it influencers. At the end of the day, what qualifies people to be called ‘leaders’ is their capacity to influence others to change their behavior in order to achieve important results.”
  • Dialogue (Isaacs) – “I will define leadership here as the capacity to hold the container for gradually larger sets of ideas, pressures, and people as the different crisis points unfold.”
  • An Everyone Culture (Kegan et al.) – “When Next Jump studied how things fail, the leaders concluded that the number one recurring pattern was the inability of people to manage their emotions, what the leaders call ‘character imbalances.’”
  • Leading Change (Kotter) – “Leadership defines what the future should look like, aligns people with that vision, and inspires them to make it happen despite the obstacles.”
  • Reinventing Organizations (Laloux) – “Consciously or unconsciously, leaders put in place organizational structures, practices, and cultures that make sense to them, that correspond to their way of dealing with the world.”
  • The Advantage (Lencioni) – “The only reason that a person should be on a [leadership] team is that she represents a key part of the organization or brings truly critical talent or insight to the table.”
  • Heroic Leadership (Lowney) – “Jesuits became leaders by understanding their strengths, weaknesses, values, and worldview; confidently innovating and adapting to embrace a changing world; engaging others with a positive, loving attitude; energizing themselves and others through heroic ambitions.”
  • The Halo Effect (Rosenzweig) – “James Meindl at SUNY Buffalo concluded after a series of insightful studies that we have no satisfactory theory of effective leadership that is independent of performance.”
  • The Titleless Leader (Russell) – “When asked, followers were able to describe exactly what they need from a leader with remarkable clarity: trust, compassion, stability, and hope.”
  • Theory U (Scharmer) – “The essence of leadership is to shift the inner place from which we operate both individually and collectively.”
  • The Fifth Discipline (Senge) – “If any one idea about leadership has inspired organizations for thousands of years, it’s the capacity to hold a shared picture of the future we seek to create.”
  • Seeing David in the Stone (Swartz) – “I realized that great leaders knew the lesson of the stone. They approached each new mission with the humility of a sculptor. They knew that if they put themselves above people, people would oppose them.”
  • Multipliers (Wiseman & McKeown) – “As leaders, probably the most important role we can play is asking the right questions and focusing on the right problems.”

What is – and What Can Be

In the end, manager see what is and leaders see what can be. Managers see today and the current reality. Those in a leadership relationship see what can be. Perhaps seeing what can be is what Leadership for the Twenty-First Century should be.