There is no such thing as leadership

Conversations with Peter Drucker November 11, 2005

Today, my friend Peter Drucker died. That thousands of other men and women around the world can say the same thing is a testament to his character and his reach, over time and across cultures.

Drucker, who will be greatly missed by us all, fathered management as a discipline and also parented many floundering managers and leaders, including me. For a time, I directed the executive management and PhD programs at Claremont Graduate University in the business school named after him, where he was the Marie Rankin Clarke Professor of Social Sciences and Management from 1971 to 2003. My most important job there was chauffeuring Peter to class on Saturdays. Jack Welch, Bill Pollard, Max DePree, and some of the other greatest names in business received his kindly mentoring, yet he always had time for me – and  for others on my staff. The best way to get free consulting was to be his driver. He also could be compensated in Krispy Kreme donuts, though his health-conscious wife, Doris, was not supposed to know this. Drucker believed she was convinced this would cut his life short (shared with me when he was 91). He once asked me to sit in on a class where he promised to give an entire lecture advising me how I should run my program. I showed up.

At lunch one day, I asked Peter to define leadership. He snorted in response, “There is no such thing as leadership.” He defended this by claiming it couldn’t be defined. He stressed that leaders were only labeled thus because they had followers. “At best, leadership may be a dimension of management,” he said, “and leaders could be identified because their actions were predictable, or perhaps trustworthy.”

When the greatest management thinker of the 20th century expresses his ambivalence about leadership, we should all pay attention. And, for those who haven’t noticed, we are awash in leadership books. Try searching on Amazon using this term … I got more than 18,000 hits with the word in the title alone. As a professor of management, and later the dean of a school of management, right-management doctrine and useful knowledge appeal to me. In fact, Peter’s doubts about leadership, his approach to framing it as a dimension of management, and his subsequent linking of this dimension to trust and predictability made sense. In the end, there was no doubt for either of us that the term would stay in our corporate vocabularies (as well as a search term on Google and Amazon), but his own penchant for precision in language and thinking made him uncomfortable and me curious.

In various recent books and articles, Drucker defined management as “making knowledge effective.” Its tasks involve “specific purpose and mission, making work productive and the worker achieving, and managing social impacts and social responsibilities” (p. 40) . Management “is not the application of common sense, or leadership, let alone financial manipulation,” (p. 17), yet it will “increasingly be concerned as much with the expression of basic beliefs and values as with the accomplishment of measurable results” (p. 36). Greenleaf said it was “the ability to state a goal and reach it, through the efforts of other people, and satisfy those whose judgment one respects, under conditions of stress” (p. 10). Louis Allen, adapting from Henri Fayol earlier in the 20th century, defined management simply as “planning, organizing, leading and controlling.”

A dimension is an expression or derivation of a concept, a way of reframing it in a different way or in a different context, and evokes ideas of measurement, perspective or depth. If “management” is the key and foundational term – as I believe Drucker would claim – then its dimensions add to our understanding of it and broaden our perspective. Allen’s four terms fit well as dimensions and include leading, the focus of this discussion. In considering the work of the manager, dimensions such as monitoring, networking, liaising, negotiating, allocating, peacemaking, recruiting, training, directing, innovating, scheduling and problem-solving add meaning also. There are numerous other possibilities.

In the 1980s, a popular definition differentiated between management and leadership, claiming the former is about doing things right and the latter about doing the right things.  (This actually may be a misunderstanding of Drucker’s definitions of efficiency and effectiveness.) However, the problem with elevating and isolating leadership from management is that we lose sight of the wider challenges, the solid body of management scholarship thus far, understood and thoroughly-debated assumptions, and a relatively well-defined taxonomy that can be useful to us. We then trade them for a field of inquiry (leadership) finding its voice, assumptions and theories. In every organization, the dimensions of management, and especially leading, should be present. In carrying out our work, we do all of these things, usually daily and sometimes hourly. How should we then understand leading, or perhaps leadership, as a distinctive dimension within the larger domain of management? And … dare we define it?

Max DePree identified an important concept – the absence of power.  Leading could be how we manage, or make knowledge effective through relationships, in powerless environments. Results are achieved around or beyond the use of power. “Leading without power” may be the only way leadership works. By definition, then, using power in leading is not leading at all. Most “leaders,” when they get into trouble, are found to have used power inappropriately and therefore become toxic.  Whenever power is exercised, it is because a “power differential” exists. There is a difference in power between two individuals and the stronger controls the weaker. When there is no power differential (it is zero or at parity), or as this differential approaches zero or parity, creating a result requires motivating or persuading the other with something besides power.

Volunteers do not contribute their time and energy because another is using power. The CEO of a nonprofit has not ordered them to serve. (If the CEO has, she should probably join a toxic leader recovery group near home.) Volunteers choose to participate out of belief, commitment, a sense of contribution, interest or whatever. It is their choice to follow. Drucker likened knowledge workers in business to volunteers because they were primarily motivated to work by nearly everything but compensation. Whether an elegant programming solution, a healed and happy patient, or an functional engineering design, knowledge workers are motivated to perform because they are interested in or satisfied by their labors. They feel they are making a contribution. If they are not, they will move to another company. If a volunteer isn’t motivated, she will stop serving at the homeless shelter.

When authors like Jim Collins describe “level-five leaders” as humble, they recognize the absence of power in leading. Even St. Therese of Lisieux wrote often of being “little” – surely an important state of mind when leading without power.  The question of character is inescapable, yet more on this below.

So, when Drucker says leaders are only defined by the presence of followers, I believe he means that these followers first exist – and that they are absolutely free from all constraints in choosing to follow. Power is absent, and the decision to follow creates the ultimate democracy. (Drucker, incidentally, was even more focused on civil society after Sept. 11, 2001.) He also mentioned once that everything we needed to know about leadership could be found in the writings of Xenophon, the Greek general of the eighth century B.C. For those unfamiliar with Xenophon’s descriptions of decision-making within the Greek army, it need only to be said that every soldier effectively had veto power over nearly every decision of Xenophon. Each decision followed hours of discussion, with opinions shared from throughout the ranks. No power was present to coerce any unwilling soldier to obey. It was all about persuasion. Thankfully, the enemy usually waited out the decision-making process. (This is somewhat similar to the faculty governance process at Quaker colleges.)

In our lunch, Drucker conceded that being predictable or trustworthy might also be an element of leadership. It became clear that these were synonymous. Followers will trust a leader because her actions are predictable. We followers trust that this is what you the leader will do, because you are predictable, and we trust your predictability. To be predictable is to be consistent in our actions and reactions. Our expectations never fail to be fulfilled, even when the news is bad. Perhaps it’s like children and parents … whether reward or discipline, the child takes comfort from getting exactly what he expects. Sometimes it is a secure feeling to get what we deserve. Presumably, it could be worse if we don’t know what to expect, and all is uncertainty.

The ultimate powerless situation results from crisis, and to a lesser extent, situations of risk or uncertainty. Small wonder that this is where we often see leaders fail or succeed. The context of powerlessness is fear, risk, vulnerability, responsibility without commensurate authority, and despair. The responses, respectively, are courage (fear), informed confidence (risk), capacity (vulnerability), visioning and communicating (no authority), and hope and optimism (despair). When other character traits like humility, being “little”, predictability, trust, honesty and grace are added, it becomes clear that only managers of character dare lead. Grace in managers is an especially peculiar phenomenon: it requires treating people better than they deserve, esteeming others as more than myself, making strengths productive and weaknesses irrelevant in followers, and forgiving. It is a counter-intuitive gift and therefore usually unexpected.

So here’s an attempt at a definition … leadership is that dimension of management that makes knowledge effective through people or relationships – in contexts of powerlessness and trust – especially those of change, risk or crisis.

Peter, what do you think?