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I've a conundrum. I'm slowly getting the grasp of leadership but I'm finding it morally concerning. Let me explain ...

From what I understand, a leader by definition needs to have followers. But then again, wouldn't it be nicer if you could liberate your followers so that they don't need to follow anyone and instead can be their own leaders? But I realize that doing so would make the leader not have any followers and they they won't remain a leader anymore.

So, it seems ... it is sadly in the best interest of the leader to never liberate the follower, keep them from reaching their full potential so that they can remain a follower forever.

Is my understanding really true?

EDIT: I do actually have a real workplace problem. I've been told several times this -- "You will be recognized as a leader when you have people coming to you". I then think, why will they come to me. When I've something I can offer them. Great. That's fine by me. But then how do I keep them coming back. For that to happen it seems I need to offer a limited form of help where I solve their symptom but not the root cause. Because if I solve the root cause they won't come to me and I don't get points. I don't know why that would be good for the company and why my manager would want this from me. It all seems so backwards/wrong

closed as unclear what you're asking by David K, sf02, IDrinkandIKnowThings, mxyzplk, Kate Gregory Mar 18 at 21:21

Please clarify your specific problem or add additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it’s hard to tell exactly what you're asking. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • Do you have a practical, applied question relevant to something happening in your workplace? As written, this question is incredibly broad and theoretical, which will make it a hard fit on the Q & A format of The Workplace. – dwizum Mar 18 at 19:45
  • Maybe a better fit for philosophy.se ? (Not necessarily specific to workplaces either!) - if it's about the workplace and you can re-word the question into a bit more concrete Q&A are you asking something like: is it in the best interest of the 'manager' to keep a hierarchical command/control relationship with their reports rather than encouraging the reports to be 'leaders of themselves'? - Sadly IMO there are a lot of managers who do seem to think this way whether through lack of understanding of leadership, need to solidify their own position, etc... – seventyeightist Mar 18 at 19:50
  • ... and sometimes that turns out in the 'best interest' of the leader/manager and sometimes it doesn't, depending on the 'political' climate in the situation, their own actual contribution, how they are perceived by their leaders... etc. – seventyeightist Mar 18 at 19:52
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    @user855 I understand what you are getting at and have felt the same way myself perhaps in the past! I think you are confusing "leadership" and something else I don't have a specific word for, but something like being the "go to" person, subject matter expert, or something like that. In general a "leader" would contribute something other than just "solving the root cause" but is also about setting direction, inspiring others, etc. Can you edit to give a more specific workplace example (even if you anonymise some of the details)? What's your position, are you the leader or the "people"? – seventyeightist Mar 18 at 19:59
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    "But then how do I keep them coming back." - keep offering them something (new). Don't give them a crippled offering in order to keep them indebted to you. – dwizum Mar 18 at 20:12
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It's a very abstract question as it stands, but I am attempting to answer it from the perspective of (what I believe the OP is actually asking based on the given information):

"as a 'leader', what can I offer (on an ongoing basis) to the people I lead, if I give them all the answers so that they can resolve it themselves in the future? How can I continue to be relevant as a leader if I 'give up the goods' right away?"

  • Leadership is more than "answering questions", even getting to the root cause of the questions! Of course a good leader is able to do that, probably due to having the knowledge and expertise, and certainly the (cliche alert) "big picture" awareness to get to the ultimate issue rather than just the 56th case of something slightly different but related, going wrong in the TTS system (or whatever your domain is).

  • Leadership is really about setting a direction, giving guidance on a strategic level, influencing people. If you have been given a "lead" role with any significant authority it's likely that this is the sort of thing the manager is expecting from you.

  • You may have been given this 'leadership' role based on your expert knowledge of "whatever the domain is", solving problems that come up and doing that quickly, etc. A lot of people are innate "leaders" like taking ownership of a situation, coming up with an approach "on the fly" to something they haven't come across before and then convincing other people to follow it. A lot of people, on the other hand, are not. You must know of the situation where people are very good at what they do so get promoted to 'leader' but haven't yet developed the "people" skills to go with that.

  • in some workplaces, people are promoted to 'leader' based on tech knowledge (or political factors) rather than actual ability to lead. (Is this your workplace?)

As a general principle, you don't have "leader" status just because you are the guy or girl who always knows what to do with The Machine when it has that obscure error message... 17 times a day (each time with a slightly different cause). You get recognised as a "leader" when you have this knowledge and experience and others have confidence in you that for any future issues (And they will happen!) that you can advise / get resources together / influence people to work together to solve that particular problem. And then move on to the next...

Unless your management are extremely short sighted and perceive "problem X" (your 'root cause') to be much bigger than it is -- they are looking to you to solve this, and future, problems with the people who are now as you put it "coming to you".

By the way, I have been in this situation in the past (if you hadn't guessed!) as the person with expert level knowledge expected to then be able to 'lead', and I did struggle at first because of "what do I have to offer, other than solving these specific problems?" and so on. But I realised that what they really wanted from me was to influence others with the backdrop of my experience, and to get others to perform! And thus it was..

  • Also look up "impostor syndrome"... – seventyeightist Mar 18 at 20:51
  • Please don't accept the answer too soon unless you feel it really does answer your question.... there are a lot of things that could be discussed/pored over with this one! - especially as I proposed an edit to the title which could open it up to more people. – seventyeightist Mar 18 at 21:02
  • ... edit to title has now been accepted. I was too slow to be able to edit my comment! :> – seventyeightist Mar 18 at 21:08
  • I think your last paragraph makes a very important point. We could really use some context from @user855. Where are they hearing the given definition of "leadership" from? Do they want to be a leader? If so, why? Or is someone else trying to get them to become a leader? If so, why? – dwizum Mar 19 at 14:16
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You edited your question to say,

EDIT: I do actually have a real workplace problem. I've been told several times this -- "You will be recognized as a leader when you have people coming to you". I then think, why will they come to me. When I've something I can offer them. Great. That's fine by me. But then how do I keep them coming back. For that to happen it seems I need to offer a limited form of help where I solve their symptom but not the root cause. Because if I solve the root cause they won't come to me and I don't get points. I don't know why that would be good for the company and why my manager would want this from me. It all seems so backwards/wrong

It strikes me that what you're describing here is more akin to indentured servitude rather than leadership. Describing leadership is well beyond the scope of a simple question and answer format, other than to say that you're right, this seems wrong - because it is wrong.

Leadership isn't the art of cultivating a dependent audience. It's the art of leading. If, in your environment, leading means "having something to offer people" as you've stated, then you'd want to continue to lead by continuing to offer things to people - not by offering them something that has a hook buried in it. In other words, have more than one original idea, versus trying to trick people into continuing to be interested in your first idea.

It's also worth pointing out that leadership isn't as fixed and easily defined as you seem to be hoping for. Leadership is a fluid relationship that can take many forms with different levels of intensity, formality, and duration. Right now, for me, I'm involved in lots of "leadership" relationships:

  • There are people in my industry or cultural groups that I consider "leaders" in a very non-personal sense - that is, I "follow" some of the things they champion, though I've never met or interacted with them.
  • There are people in my company at higher levels that I look to for guidance, even though they're not in my direct supervision chain.
  • There are people working for me that would (likely) identify me as their leader - I'm setting the stage for their work, helping them solve problems, giving them direction.
  • There are people in hobby circles that "follow" me as a leader due to innovations I've come up with or methods I've written about.

Through all these relationships, leaders come and go, and followers come and go. Being a leader is more about your thoughts, actions, and behaviors than it is about counting people who would identify as your follower.

Along that line, my employer promotes the concept of "leadership in your role" which is intended to mean that everyone has the opportunity to "lead" in the sense of doing their work well, solving problems, and taking initiative - activities that other employees will naturally "follow" as a path to success. This is seen as a very different concept from management, which is more about organizational structure and integrity. Everyone can be a leader - we have employees who have been doing basically the same thing for 20 years and are thought of as critical thought leaders in their area, even though they have no employees reporting to them, for instance.

To bring this back around to your original question, based on the way you wrote it, it seems like you're trying to achieve some goal. I'm basing that comment on this:

I've been told several times this -- "You will be recognized as a leader when you have people coming to you"

I don't think any of us can give you a direct answer to your real question, unless we know: why do you want to be seen as a leader? Is that your ultimate goal, or a means to an end? Are you hoping that "being a leader" will mean a promotion or some other opportunity?

  • Thanks. I think I understand what you're saying a little bit, but where I am still stuck is this -- I think if a leader leads a person correctly, the natural and correct outcome has to be that the person eventually doesn't need leading. In other words I think -- If I lead a group of 5 people, eventually, if I am good leader I shouldn't be left with any person left to lead. Am I understanding this correctly? – user855 Mar 18 at 20:33
  • @user855 that's only true if they are growing and you are not. As long as you're changing as a leader too, the entire team continues to move. – thursdaysgeek Mar 18 at 21:15
  • Aah. Very good point. That makes a ton of sense! So in summary:- (a) You have something to offer them today that makes them follow you today (b) You learn new things that they might need that allows you to have them as followers tomorrow as well (c) You don't do indentured servitude (d) Each day they might follow you for a different reason and that's Ok and encouraged. – user855 Mar 18 at 21:38
  • It seems leaders are those who (a) solve each person's problems with indivualized solutions (b) or find solutions that help several people at once (c) find new opportunities for people ... The moment someone helps other this way, this person is automatically acting as their leader in this microcosm and those people are this person's followers as well in this microcosm. Correct? – user855 Mar 18 at 21:46
  • Leadership isn't as fixed as you're making it out to be. It's not a single concrete relationship. I am being "lead" by lots of people right now, and I am "leading" lots of people. Some of those relationships are tight and long lasting. Some are by nature shorter and much less influential. Some are formal, in the sense of me managing employees. Some are informal, in the sense that "leaders" in other branches of the company are people I look to for guidance. There isn't a scoring system and "followers" aren't points to be earned. – dwizum Mar 19 at 12:42
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To follow up on Joe's comment though I suspect this one might get closed.

A leader can be both a follower and a leader at the same time to different people for different purposes.

Everyone wins when as a leader you develop people to their full potential and it's not unusual to reverse roles several times in a long relationship. I can think of a dozen people who have both led and been led by me and I'm pretty sure it's fulfilling all round.

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