Follow the Leader

I’m fascinated by movies where a bunch of people fall victim to some kind of natural disaster or freak accident, because the story inevitably revolves around a central question of leadership: “who are these people going to follow?”  It’s fun to watch as candidates emerge for the leadership role; debates and arguments ensue, people take sides, etc.  Usually the smartest, calmest and most positive voice emerges to lead folks out of harm’s way.

So for years, whenever I was on a team of about 8-10 people, I would start daydreaming during boring staff meetings – “if we were lost at sea, or shipwrecked on a desert island, which one of us would emerge as the leader?” Have you ever thought about this?  (Please tell me I’m not alone in making up these crazy scenarios).

Here’s what I think is fascinating – only once (in all the teams I’ve been part of) did I ever think that the current “leader” (the boss) would get to keep his or her stature if all bets were off and we were in survival mode. Nine times out of ten, we’d have turned elsewhere for leadership.  And it’s not just that we were tired of following these people and wanted a change of pace.  It’s totally because they were the “leader” in name only – their position gave them the authority to call the shots at work, but if the organizational structure were to disappear, there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell we would have followed these people.

What does that say about the quality of organizational leadership? Maybe nothing – there are a lot of reasons that people climb the corporate ladder and assume top leadership roles.  But I’ve always found it to be an interesting fantasy – who in the group would emerge as the leader in a crisis, if all status were stripped away, and we all were equal?  Would it be Susie, because she’s calm and logical?  Would it be Joey?  He seems to have everyone’s respect.  Would it be you?

So here’s a fun little exercise for this week’s staff meeting. Look around the room, and daydream about the survival/crisis leadership question.  Would the boss still be the leader on the desert island?  If yes, you’re probably working for someone pretty special.  If no, you may be looking at a leader in name only.  And if it is someone else, think about why you’d gravitate to their wisdom and stewardship.  Try to describe why you think they’d emerge as the natural leader.

What’s the lesson in all of this? I think it’s that leadership ultimately springs from a deep well of integrity, trust, and respect.  Any of us can be leaders, even if we’re not the boss.  Something to think about the next time your “leader” is driving you crazy – if you could just get the whole team to a desert island…