Are You A Great Leader? Does It Even Matter?

Last Updated Apr 18, 2011 4:13 PM EDT

The legend of the heroic leader is embedded in entrepreneurial lore. Think of Steve Jobs returning to the helm of Apple and transforming it from a second-tier computer maker to a global technology powerhouse. Whether or not that's really what happened at Apple, is the legend relevant to the ordinary entrepreneur? Some say it's not, at least not always.

Less leading, more work
"There are numerous situations I can think of where we could actually do with less talking, posturing and game-planning and more, well, work," says André Spicer, a professor at the UK's Warwick Business School, a leadership researcher and co-editor of the recently published Metaphors We Lead By. Spicer made his comment in an interview published in Warwick's Knowledge Centre. His main point: The value of leadership is often overrated. Particularly in knowledge-intensive industries, he says, dynamic leaders are often superfluous:

"Individuals who are well-educated, well-trained and know what they are doing don't need to be micro-managed. They are more than capable of managing themselves and are very self-motivated... For many people, exhibiting their leadership skills is actually just a convenient way of avoiding the boring admin tasks that still need to be done."
Ouch.

Spicer's big complaint is that the outsized -- he cites a 100 to 1 ratio -- pay differential between top leaders and ordinary business people makes leadership seem more important and desirable than it really is. "People clamor to showcase their leadership capabilities, incentivized by a pay-rise rather than responding to a need within the organization," he says.

Spicer would find a sympathetic listener in Jason Fried, founder of Chicago-based software company 37signals. Fried writes in a recent Inc. column that he has avoided creating management positions at his 26-person company. His philosophy is to hire people who want to be masters at what they do, whether engineering or customer service, and then let them be. Putting such masters into leadership positions would only take them away from what they're good at, he reasons.

That practice worked well until a long-time employee expressed a desire for the prestige of a manager's title. Fried resisted. The employee wound up launching her own company, allowing her to get the laurels she was after without inflicting a leader on 37signals.

Should an owner keep leadership to herself?
Finnish doctoral candidate Helena Palmgren explored the issue in the context of small firms and, like Spicer, worries about uncritical acceptance of the value of strong leaders. Her research, she writes, "raises concerns about the taken-for-granted conceptions of leadership as something good and indispensable and their power-related implications in organizations, particularly in small, owner-run enterprises, where employees are dependent on the owner-manager."

What Palmgren is saying here is that leaders who also own the company have to do more than make sure things run smoothly. They also have to set the standard for moral behavior. As Palmgren puts it, "A good leader [is] both effective and ethical."

If you're concerned about having too many leaders and not enough leadership, it may not be necessary to outlaw managers as Fried has done. Instead, consider these guidelines when it comes to promoting others into positions of leadership, and to exercising your own:

  • Promote people to managers only when you need managers. Don't do it only to justify a pay raise.
  • On the other hand, if your best technicians need more pay, pay them more.
  • But never put them into leadership jobs that don't make use of their best talents.
Especially if you're in a small company, follow Palmgren's advice and don't keep leadership entirely to yourself. "Proprietors should enable their personnel to voice their concerns about the company matters, take initiative, and participate in solving the problems experienced in small companies," Palmgren writes, "instead of retaining power to their own hands only." It turns out that you can sometimes best lead others by letting them lead themselves.


Mark Henricks has reported on business, technology and other topics for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, and other leading publications long enough to lay somewhat legitimate claim to being The Article Authority. Follow him on Twitter @bizmyths.

Image courtesy of Flickr user cambodia4kidsorg, CC2.0

  • Mark Henricks

    Mark Henricks' reporting on business and other topics has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Inc., Entrepreneur, and many other leading publications. He lives in Austin, Texas, where myth looms as large as it does anywhere.