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Gold Without the Idol?

Updated: Oct 27

Earlier, I discussed problems that come from focusing at the person at the top instead of the whole organization - and yet I felt something nagging. I’d seen the fire in the eyes of founders and witnessed its power to create change. Yes, the silver-tongued visionary people shouldn’t stand as proxy for the organization, but the silver-tongued visionary people also have important gifts. How do organizations that value distributed leadership leverage them? Is it possible for charismatic leaders to use their gifts without the organization falling into unhelpful patterns of leading and following?


I spoke with a different kind of founder about this question, one who had helped launch a self-managed collection of professionals who help organizations embrace new organizational forms (to my delight, I’ve since become an “Explorer” in this same community). She pointed me to an article by Alanna Irving that had one welcome answer. It’s not that we shouldn’t value the power of charismatic leadership – it’s that we should also value many other ways that leadership emerges. Who hasn’t wrung their hands seeing an organization with a visionary leader at the helm that doesn’t have any grasp of operations? Alanna names a wide range of gifts that should properly be recognized as leadership, not aspects of management (evaluation, maintenance, optimization) and holds up the circular aspect, how each lays a foundation for others.


I also spoke with others. I asked these questions at a conference full of organizations working full-tilt on electoral politics and union building, who nevertheless were falling into the same narrow charismatic definition of leadership (they welcomed a grassroots labor organizer who had won a huge victory by bringing him onto a TED-talk style stage, where his gifts weren’t well showcased). “The simplicity of one person is motivating at a particular stage of movement-building” one answered, and that’s hard to deny. It would be interesting to examine seasonality of leadership gifts – conditions that signal which needs to be particularly salient in an organization at any given time.


Both of these answers point to interdependence and balance between many gifts – but how does that happen? As is often the case in organizations with distributed leadership, clarity and transparency is key. What would result from a frank discussion about the power and perils of charismatic leadership in the team? What boundaries or guideposts might be defined?


I can imagine a scenario where, after such a discussion, those leaders breathe out a sigh of relief and happiness – they are free to bring their unique selves forward, not in isolation, but as a genuine part of their team.





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