Have you ever met an Imaginary Leader or experienced the displeasure of working for one?
Unfortunately, it is altogether likely that you have, and it is a foregone conclusion that you didn’t like it.”
It also follows naturally that the group/ company suffered as a result. The reality is, there are a lot of Imaginary Leaders (defined below)…many occupying positions of authority, but all wreaking havoc on people, productivity, and profits.
Perhaps you can relate to one of the following based on your experience with leaders in your professional walk:
- The persecution of people by proxy
- The persecution of productivity by process
- The persecution of profit by policy
There may be others, but these are the top 3 punishing practices of Imaginary Leaders that I’ve identified over the past 31 years. In contrast, these are practices that Real Leaders avoid. Not only that, they make a habit of identifying where and when they occur and go out of their way to stop them, every chance they get.
Imitating the Imaginary or Getting Real
Today, Imaginary Leaders not only abound, they continue to grow; mostly because future leaders tend to lead how they were led, and since many have served, and been promoted, under Imaginary Leaders…well, you get the point. I should clarify, however, that while their leadership is imaginary the problems (e.g., negative impact/ results) are very real and should be stopped.
But before we can identify and bring an end to these punishing practices, we need to understand a little more about who we’re talking about and the proximate causes that create the persecuting effects.
Two Leadership Profiles
Following is a basic profile of both Imaginary and Real Leaders.
Imaginary leaders are Leaders-in-Position—entitled by promotion to a position (granted by someone higher in the organizational structure).
The Leaders-in-Position is characterized by one or more of the following:
- Exert mostly positional power (i.e., legitimate, coercive, reward) and often abuse it
- Have “direct” reports, but only imagine they are being followed
- Followership is “voluntold” (not voluntary) and motivated by fear, desperation
- Use authority as the principal source of social, political, and professional influence
- Employ more restrictive than prescriptive leadership strategies
- Fix the blame when things go wrong
- Place a primary, if not exclusive, focus on short-term results (and behaviors/ attitudes)
Real Leaders, however, are Leaders-in-Person—earned by appointment to a provisional role (regardless of position, ‘Leader’ becomes a title given by those who choose to follow, regardless of where they are in the organizational hierarchy).
The Leaders-in-Person is associated with the following characteristics:
- Rely mostly on personal power (i.e., expert, referent, informational) and use positional power judiciously
- May or may not have direct reports, but actually garner a large following
- Followership is voluntary; motivated by respect, inspiration
- Use authenticity as the principal source of social, political, and professional influence
- Employ more prescriptive than restrictive leadership strategies
- Fix the system when things go wrong
- Place a primary, but not exclusive, focus on long term results (and effort/ thinking):
Let me add that every leader has a choice to make here; whether our leadership will imitate the imaginary or get real. So before moving on, I want to challenge you to stop for a few minutes and perform a quick self-evaluation against these two distinct leadership profiles.
How have you been led? Where do you fall?”
What “Lies” Behind the Cause
Hidden safely behind the proximate cause(s) are a host of assumptions and theories that undergird and support this contrast. But for the sake of time and space—running the risk of oversimplifying—it can be reduced to basic differences in the following equations when it comes to the performance of people, productivity, and profit:
Command & Control Model
McGregor’s Theory X + Skinnerian Behaviorism + Taylor’s Scientific Management = Command & Control [CC]
Continual Improvement Model
McGregor’s Theory Y + Kohn’s Model for Motivation + Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge (SoPK)/ 14 Points = Continual Improvement [CI]
While generalizations are not always accurate, the following may help add some much-needed color inside the lines for better contrast:
- From a structural perspective, the CC approach is typically associated with Hierarchical and definitely associated with Bureaucratic organizations while the CI approach is associated with Lean/Customer-Focused, Flat or even Holacratic
- From a cultural perspective, CC can be said to produce aggressive/defensive or passive/defensive organizations whereas CI can produce constructive
- From a managerial perspective, CC is autocratic while CI is participative.
I’ve embedded some links for further study, but what’s important to understand here is that these combined theories-in-use (i.e., CC and CI) are incompatible and irreconcilable.
A Situational Leadership Dilemma
It may be fanciful to suggest that situational leadership dictates which approach gets applied, but the reality is that this never happens.
Here are a couple of illustrations to support this point.
- If you hold a CI frame of reference, you won’t ever need to adopt a CC approach to resolve performance problems related to people, process or profit, and the reasons are simple: (a) SoPK has already revealed to the Real Leader that 94% of the performance problems they will encounter are built into the system as a common cause of variation and they’ll seek to reduce variability around these causes in order to improve, and (b) the other 6% of the time that performance problems can be attributable to special causes, they’ll be able to constructively resolve without abandoning CI as there is simply nothing about the CC approach that is more helpful in these situations.
- If you hold a CC frame of reference, you won’t ever choose to adopt a CI approach to resolve performance problems with people, process, or profit. I’ve never seen this occur. In a crisis or performance problem situation, I’ve never seen an Imaginary Leader fix the system after already fixing the blame…NEVER! The reasons are equally simple: (a) they lack Profound Knowledge, so how could systems thinking, a knowledge of variation, the theory of knowledge, and psychology ever inform their actions, and (b) their theories-in-use have convinced them that the performance problem is effectively resolved once “accountability’ firmly fixed the blame, so there is nothing else to do.
The Practices of Persecution
Every leader will engage in certain practices when approaching others and their daily work as a natural consequence of the assumptions they make and the theories they adopt.
It is unavoidable in the thinking-knowing-doing-performing cycle.”
The problem is that, while all theories, by definition, are valid, some are simply more useful to leadership when it comes to improving individual, group, and organizational performance.
Even though mounting evidence continues to suggest that the CI approach is based on more useful theories, CC is still extremely prevalent. Compounding the problem is a simple fact that an Imaginary Leader using CC can still get promoted, make more money and experience all the trappings of success—at least in the short-term.
We see it all the time. Tragically, the longer a CC theoretical framework remains entrenched—both in Academia and in Business—the more likely it is that misattribution of success (borrowed from Human Synergistics® International’s original defensive misattribution† description) will occur/ recur and the harder it becomes to abandon.
Misattribution of Success occurs when an Imaginary Leader actually begins to mistakenly attribute their success—at least from a short-term perspective and based on certain financial and business-process measures of merit—to CC (and the assumptions/ theories that support it) rather than to other internal factors like a defensive organizational culture (where CC flourishes) or substantial resources with minimal demands (where the group/ organization can succeed in spite of CC).
† Cooke, R.A. and Szumal, J.L., Handbook of Organizational Culture and Climate, pp. 152-159, Copyright © 2000 by Sage Publications.
This is why we find ourselves where we are today with Imaginary Leaders and the corresponding practices of persecution mentioned above, which you can read in greater detail here: Imaginary Leader (Part 2 of 2).
In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts!
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Richard S. Dillard is Founder/ Managing Partner at Dillard Partners, LLC
Pursuing Success at the Speed of Leadership!
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Excellent article, Richard! I have been ‘banging the drum’ with my clients about the difference between “title leadership” (ghost leadership or leaders in position) vs. “authentic leadership” (leader in person). No matter what we refer to it as, the facts are the same as you pointed out; leaders in position can ruin any organization (without intent or knowledge) simply because they aren’t true leaders who influence and inspire those who follow. Achieving “voluntary followship” is the crux of true leadership. As Eisenhower said (my favorite leadership quote and may not be verbatim) “a leader is someone who gets others to do what he/she needs them to do ….and they WANT to do it!” That speaks to heart of leader in person! Well done article and I will be passing it on! Diane Lange The Leadership Lane
Great quote Diane; Achieving “voluntary followship” is the crux of true leadership”.
Thank you for the kind words, Diane. I hope you’ll gain some traction with your clients. Keep pressing! I also hope you gain some utility out of Part 2 of 2, which should be published shortly.
Thank you, Richard. I will be looking for part 2 and please excuse my typos – I can’t go in and edit once I submitted my comments! I won’t make that mistake again!
Very true Richard…you are only a leader if you have followers. Voluntary followship as Diane mentioned
Hi Richard, and thanks for the article. As the ‘leader’ of a small company, it provides a great resource for introspection and personal analysis. I’ll be sharing with our team and looking for ways to improve, as well as looking forward to your Part 2.