Beyond folk leadership

Dec 14 2009 by Mitch McCrimmon Print This Article

We have heard of folk psychology and folk medicine Ė everyday beliefs about how the mind and body work Ė but what about folk leadership? Is there a primitive concept of leadership that is now outdated?

Folk physics contains false beliefs such as heavier objects falling faster than lighter ones. But we don't need to be physicists to know the outcome of falling off a ladder. Similarly, folk psychology is not all wrong. We can get along with people without being psychologists. Thus some folk concepts work in simple situations.

If there is a folk concept of leadership, what would a new model of leadership look like? Why do we hang onto folk leadership and why should we abandon it? Further, we want to know what benefits we would gain.

The Primitive Nature of Folk Leadership

Folk leadership is the idea that being a leader means being in charge of a group.

Folk leadership has biological and psychological foundations. Most higher animal species form hierarchies with one individual dominating, a biologically primitive fact. The urge to dominate others can't be learned if it is shared with all higher animals.

That we fail to seriously question this view of leadership confirms the vice-like grip it has on us. This is worrying in an era that places a premium on creative thinking and empowerment, challenging the status quo and thinking differently.

Psychologically, folk leadership is riddled with paternalism. When people are asked what they want in a leader, they describe an ideal parent.

When people are asked what they want in a leader, they describe an ideal parent
Transactional analysis helps us compare parent-child with adult-adult relationships. It also distinguishes between nurturing and critical parent. The nurturing parent is empathetic, considerate and developmental while the critical parent disciplines and controls us.

It is surely no accident that our definitions of leadership and management closely parallel the description of these two parenting styles. Leaders, we believe, are inspiring, considerate, empowering and developmental, thus nurturing, while managers are mechanistic, cold, controlling, unsympathetic and punitive.

So, our definitions of leadership and management give us away, proving that we want leaders who are nurturing parent figures. The fact that we look up to our most admired leaders and want to depend on them also confirms the psychologically primitive basis of folk leadership.

We criticize leaders for not being as competent or ethical as they used to be. Another explanation of our dissatisfaction is that our need for them has escalated. When you felt frightened or anxious as a child you turned to a nurturing parent for comfort and safety. Today's rapid pace, increased pressure to deliver and greater complexity combine to make us more anxious.

Because today's leaders, being only human, cannot fully calm our fears, we feel let down by them. So, we have unrealistic expectations of leaders, not that they are less capable. Our rising fears and anxieties are driving us to want more dependent relationships with leaders to soothe our fears, just when we need to be more empowered.

Simple versus Complex Groups

Presumably folk leadership conveys some evolutionary advantage. The top dog's right to mate contributes to the evolution of a stronger population. Autocratic leadership allows the group to unite when threatened with attack.

But when the environment changes, a species must evolve or become extinct. Thus to justify upgrading leadership, we need to see how our environment has changed and how that demands a new model of leadership. The environment has not changed for all groups, however. Street gangs and other simple groups can operate much as they have for eons.

What sorts of groups are facing the most environmental change and could become extinct if they fail to evolve. If simple groups like street gangs are at one end of a continuum, what is at the other end?

The obvious candidates are highly complex businesses that rapidly change direction thanks to relentless innovation. Some such businesses are networks rather than tightly knit units. The group of all software developers across the globe working on an open source piece of software isn't even an organization but it is still a group, one that moves in new directions as better ideas emerge. No one is in charge of such groups and they are not hierarchies.

What's New?

What has changed in the business environment that might force us to abandon the idea that leadership is a role in a hierarchy?

Dynamic is replacing static: hierarchies are static. In a dynamic context, leadership rapidly shifts from one player to another as a one-off act not an ongoing role.

Business is now a war of ideas. New ideas, which generate new directions can't be monopolized to dominate a group.

Complexity and rapid change make it hard for those at the top to decide on new directions, driving them to seek ideas for new directions whatever their source, in which case who is leading whom?

Groups are evolving from cohesive units to networks, partnerships and strategic alliances, making it hard for a hierarchy to dominate them. Leadership, conceived as a one-off act, can emerge from anywhere.

We've come a long way since the days of the divine right of kings where subjects had no rights, no constitution and no education to defend themselves. Questioning the king was suicidal. Today, educated knowledge workers in modern democracies feel little fear in challenging the status quo. If not engaged, they walk. We need to recognize the growing power of innovative knowledge workers to generate new directions for organizations, to show leadership in other words.

Leadership that is not a role in a hierarchy is therefore a one-off act of influence. While this may sound strange, it is no different from any other form of influence, like selling, for example, which can also be done on an occasional one-off basis. In other words, it isn't just those in charge who can use influence to show leadership.

Beyond Folk Leadership

A key implication of the above changes is that the direction leadership provides can come from anywhere within or outside the organization. For example, some of Jack Welch's ideas such as being number one or two in a market had a leadership impact on companies where he was an outsider.

In stable organizations, little or no leadership is required
This way of viewing leadership explains how companies like Apple show leadership in software, music and cell phones. Crucially, it allows innovative knowledge workers to show bottom-up leadership when they promote new products. Even a junior accountant who promotes the purchase of electric pencil sharpeners shows leadership. How empowering is that? Leadership so defined means simply showing the way for others.

Chief executives show leadership by promoting a new vision but they are managers by virtue of their roles and when they are not actively showing leadership.


  • All decision making is done by management, not leadership.
  • Leadership sells the tickets for the journey, management drives the bus to the destination.
  • Leadership must mean only promoting a better way; otherwise it couldn't be shown bottom up or by outsiders.
  • Leadership has nothing to do with managing people - that's what managers do. A bottom-up leader does not manage the senior executive team after all.
  • In stable organizations, little or no leadership is required, only good management.
  • Businesses like Microsoft that are good followers can be successful with very little leadership. Again, good management is enough.

Benefits of Moving Beyond Folk Leadership

  • Greater empowerment and engagement if all employees can show some leadership.
  • Reduced burden on managers to show all the leadership.
  • More adult-adult relationships as employees feel more empowered and less dependent.
  • More innovation when employees feel greater ownership for leadership.
  • Greater organizational agility if leadership no longer means preserving the status quo.

Changing the Culture

Leadership shorn of its positional overtones is most applicable in complex, innovation driven businesses composed of highly qualified knowledge workers. Management also needs to be upgraded. Think of the managers of sports figures like Tiger Woods. The analogy is not perfect, however, as managers can fire employees while Tiger Woods can fire his manager, not the other way around.

Still, managing skilled knowledge workers requires good coaching skills, the emotional intelligence to accept new ideas (leadership) bottom-up and the ability to develop people. Adult-adult communication and relationships need to be cultivated to counter both of the disempowering parental styles - being overly nurturing or critical. Coaching and negotiating need to replace nurturing and discipline.

More needs to be said about the practical steps required to move beyond folk leadership. The main point here is to challenge anyone interested in leadership to think critically about why we hang onto the idea that leadership means being in charge of a group.


About The Author

Mitch McCrimmon
Mitch McCrimmon

Mitch McCrimmon has over 30 years experience in executive assessment and coaching split between Canada and the UK. He is also the author of three management books, the latest being Burn! 7 Leadership Myths in Ashes,