How is Leadership Theory Like the Airline Industry?
By Mitch McCrimmon
The basic model of the airline industry never changes. We have some superficial variety, ranging from costly frills to no frills, but aircraft still move large numbers of people from one airport to another at a speed that has not changed for some 50 years. Why not aircraft that are only big enough to pick up one person, which can land on your doorstep, be computer controlled and whisk you to your destination at 10 times the speed of sound? Now that would be a different model.
Similarly, leadership theory has always been about what it means and takes to attain and hold a position of authority over a group of people. We have some very different conceptions of leadership – those offered by Haifetz, Jim Collins, servant leadership, command and control, to name only a few, but they all share a focus on the person in charge. Simply put, traditional leadership theory is fascinated by the chief executive officer and all that it takes to be one.
Why do we not question this basic model? A non-positional slant says that leadership is nothing but showing the way, either by example or by explicitly promoting a new direction regardless of whether you have people reporting to you or not.
Suppose you are a Heifetz fan. You might object to my view along the following lines: Sure, leaders need a vision of a brighter future, but they can also sit down with followers a la Heifetz and help them work through options for reaching that better future. Leadership can be vision AND facilitation, in other words. But, in taking this line, you are showing your interest in understanding the whole person of the leader. For me there are no ”leaders” only disparate acts of leaderSHIP.
Consider this analogy: how to define a whale. I want to understand what differentiates whales from all other mammals. By contrast, traditional leadership theorists are only marginally interested in this question. They are avid whale watchers. So, when I say that characteristics x, y and z differentiate whales from other mammals, you object that whales also have interesting eating, mating and sleeping habits. I shrug my shoulders to this because those behaviors don’t differentiate them from other mammals. But I can do this because I’m not really interested in whales for their own sake.
Using this analogy on Heifetz, for example, I would say that helping people work through problems doesn’t differentiate leaders from OD consultants or executive coaches. The only thing all leaders have in common is promoting a new direction. Martin Luther King was leading as an outsider when he protested against segregation on buses. He was promoting new attitudes to the world at large, challenging the status quo. He had no positional authority. Showing the way is also what someone leading by example does. So do market leading companies or sports figures leading in particular competitive events and, of course, those who show leadership bottom-up. Moreover, if you can successfully promote a new direction as an outsider without even knowing your followers let alone sitting down with them in facilitative fashion, then such behavior can’t be a necessary, differentiating factor.
If you accept the traditional model of leadership, you naturally want to understand the whole person of the leader: origins, development, character, style, etc. For me, there are no common characteristics across the vast diversity of people that we find in senior executive roles. The search to understand such people is painful precisely because it is so hopeless. They simply have too little in common. The whole move to acknowledge situational or contextual factors is defensive. It allows us to keep the belief alive that there are still some yet-to-be-discovered universals across all positional leaders.
A new model says that leadership can be shown by anyone because it could be a simple once-in-a-lifetime action. And I emphatically don’t mean that anyone can be a chief executive. I only mean that everyone has some idea of how to do something that is better than what his or her colleagues are doing. Regardless of how small scale and local such action may be, it is still leadership defined as successfully persuading people to change direction.
Traditionalists are enthralled with the CEO for a good reason. They want heroes who they can view as role models in their own quest to better themselves. There is nothing wrong with striving to be like our role models but the CEO role is too complex to be subsumed under the leadership label. CEOs show some leadership now and then but much of what they do is really just good management.