Leadership – a property of individuals or organizations?

Leadership is not just about the heroic leader

Leadership is not just about the heroic leader

Most leadership programmes focus on building the capacity of the leaders to lead,  a deficit approach, if you like. It seems to make sense – if there is weak leadership, help the leaders to get better. And yet, leadership is the result of the processes,  structures and relationships in an organization. The individual leader’s qualities are only one factor only among many.

Managing leadership from a systemic perspective, a new paper from the Centre for Progressive Leadership (Tate 2013) says

…a manager’s leadership activity is not pursued by individuals acting alone, confidently, trusted, and free of restraint or political interference. Leadership is foremost a social activity, an empathic as much as a cognitive pursuit, one conducted through relationships. Moreover, leadership wholly depends on interacting not just with colleagues and other people, but also with organizational things.

This post pulls out some bits I enjoyed best from this stimulating paper. It is 37 pages long and well worth the effort, but to save you the trouble, here are some key ideas.

Tate uses the metaphor of a fishtank to understand leadership: the fish are not going to perform well, if the fishtank is dirty and badly run.

He reminds us of Kurt Lewin’s equation:


Behaviour is a function of personality and environment (1936).

Stepping back from the system to look at it at arm’s length, it is difficult not to agree with the claim

If aggregated performance improvement is to receive greater attention, then HR’s contribution requires greater consideration of the wider system’s dynamic behaviour and performance.

Tate 2013, p3

This is, in effect, a design issue. We know from the work of Systems Dynamics Thinkers that system design (intentional or not) influences the outcomes you end up with. Tate cites the Pareto Principle  (aka the 80:20 rule) to suggest that performance is 20 heroic ability and 80 environment. And why not?

So the top, ‘super-leaders’ should focus on cleaning the fishtank, filtering out obstacles and detritus in the environment that prevent the fish from going about their fish business.

Leadership is not defined by the exercise of power, but by the capacity to increase the sense of power among those led.

Mary Parker Follett (1924) in Tate 2013

I would say this is particularly true in places like where I work – it is a research organization and people are all fiercely clever (the place bristles with PhDs), tremendously experienced, and amazingly committed (this is research for development, at the helping people end of the spectrum)

But who is to say what the problems in the environment are?

We do not see the world as it is, but as we are.

says Maturana (ibid p25)

Leaders need to be open to the alternative realities of their staff. What is an obvious problem to me may not even be on your radar screen. There is no right answer but a system of interlinked problems which are different depending who is seeing them. I mentioned this in my 20×21 talk and said, “The most we can do with this kind of problematic, messy situation is not solve it but nudge it along to a better place.”. Now I have a term for this. Clumsy Solutions. Cool.

‘Clumsy solutions’ defy elegant, linear and scientific solutions and choices between well-understood alternatives. Instead they artfully and pragmatically combine a range of interpretations, opposing beliefs and value sets about how problems with a social element are best solved.

Tate 2013, p16

This is why diversity is needed in teams. Else, where do you find your opposing beliefs and value sets? It also suggests that hierarchical leadership is not the most effective way to deal with messy and wicked problems. Distributed leadership may work best. If you want to read more about how to make distributed leadership work, read the paper!


  1. Interesting insights. I confess, I’ve always thought of leadership as something of a personal quality. Now I can see that maybe the person needs the right environment in which to be able to exercise leadership. But is the reverse true? If a person lacks those qualities, or abilities, or desires, can the right environment bring them forth?

  2. Great post Arwen, yes I agree leadership is about understanding the institutional environment asnd how to help people perform better in that environment, yes it is primarily about the social relations that one maintains. There are interesting examples from anthropology on important leaders among native americans or in southern Africa. Leaders were often those who spoke last and least. They often lived with fewer posessions, yet more people went to them for advice and their words were heeeded more than others. In the end no decisions were made without the leaders agreement as this is what gave the group or institution confidence that the action was in the collective interest of the group. A leader is not the one who sets herself apart and above the group but who resides in the midst of a complex system of relationships. Julius Ceasar’s early rise and influence came from his easy banter and simple ways of living with his legions. His earthy speeches, his simple prose when writing reports to the Senate gave him great leadership power that threatened the patricians in the hierarchy. His decision to live in Subura, a plebian neighbourhood, was a conscious move to build his leadership by understanding the workings and underbelly of Roman life. He also played the role of patrician when required by managing those institutions all too well, leading to his assasination by the Senate. Et tu Arwen.

  3. Jeremy – guess if you see the Pareto Principle as a rule, then the short answer must be ‘Yes’. The 80% could be perfect, but the 20% sadly deficient.

    However, when is it ever that simple?

    It may be helpful two untangle two ideas in this paper – one is the one mainly expressed in this post, the B=f(P,E) aka The Fishtank. Most organizations (for whatever reason) focus on P. When I worked with Gender & Diversity, we would call this “fixing the women” rather than “fixing the organization”. The former is easier than the latter. But less effective. It also begs a whole load of questions. Besides the pragmatic aspect of defining indicators for someone else’s performance and the subjectivity of measuring it, what kind of leadership are you thinking of? Leadership can be associated with authority (ie you are the Director), but it can also be associated with expertise, relationships, charisma, money, and probably more. So your wee fish may be a great leader in one or more of these ways but not the others.

    Another thing, as our Systems professor Ray Ison is fond of saying, “Metaphors reveal and conceal”. The Fishtank is really cute for seeing the P/E balance (no point pulling the fish out “for a spot of training” and then putting them back in the same dirty water). What it misses though is probably the most interesting part of this paper: the idea of leadership as a property of organizations – ie as something that emerges from the relationships, emotions, processes, structures of the organization. We all know places that we consider “well led” and it is not necessarily full of great leaders.

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