Monday, 17 November 2008

How people lead people

This article is about how people lead people, but starts out with a more fundamental question: Why do people lead people? Indeed why do leaders exist?

To answer this we must go further back and ask why there are even any groups of people to be led. The simple answer is that is what works. Specialisation of roles emerged long before Henry Ford and Adam Smith - as soon as hunter-gatherers settled in villages and discovered agriculture, there were some people out in the fields digging, some people making tools or clothes, some raising children and others inventing the wheel.

Specialised roles are more efficient because people have different talents and, with practice, can get good at one thing. They can use the tools appropriate to the job and stay in one place to carry it out. And when you have specialised roles, you need a team. Whoever is making the clothes still needs food to eat, and if they are not growing it themselves they must cooperate with someone who is.

So groups of cooperating people emerged. This is what we now call a team - a group of people cooperating - working together - to deliver results.

And now we are ready to answer our question: why do leaders arise?

To achieve the greatest results, a team must act with purpose. This means that it has a goal in mind and that its actions are to further that goal. It may be as simple as "produce more wheat" but it's likely that a more specific goal (specialisation again) will be more successful. The more directed the purpose of the team, the greater its results will be. There is competition in everything, so those teams which achieve the greatest results are those which survive.

A team which has the purpose of build the biggest retail company in the world or win the Bedfordshire Sunday hockey league knows what it's there for, and can design actions to succeed in that goal. A team whose purpose is paint and recarpet the office before Monday morning may not know the strategic objective of its work, but it's pretty clear what has to be done.

A purpose is an expression of what-we-want or what-we-are-going-to-do. In both cases it is a product of human motivation, and the fundamental source of motivation is the internal consciousness of a single human mind. The motivations of multiple people in teams must be somehow aligned, in order that they stay together. But the purpose of a team is most consistent and focused when it is declared out of the motivation of a single person.

That, in its most essential form, is the leader: the person who declares the purpose of the team and somehow makes its actions consistent with that purpose.

This is not to say that teams cannot arise organically and manage themselves. But this takes a lot of willpower and subtlety, so it is not the most common or stable form for a team. Other things being equal, most teams will have leaders.

Leaders arise for another reason, and that is because they can. All people are biologically set up to benefit from having power over others. Therefore, it's natural to want to be a leader, and if the social structure allows for leaders, they will arise. That motivation does not directly serve the team and is not what causes the team to produce results, but it does influence who ends up as the leader of a team.

And it also exists symbiotically with the nature of teams; people need leaders to deliver the best results, and leaders need people to lead for their own fulfillment.

This, then, is the answer to Why do people lead people? Or is it? There is another reason - and that is to make a contribution. Leaders contribute to their followers both through the results that they help the team produce - and by the sense of purpose that they offer to the individuals in the group. Participating in a powerful goal which challenges you, while learning from those you work with, is an amazing growth experience which gives you new abilities to achieve results in the future. These psychological rewards are as important as material rewards, especially in a society where material need is not the main driver for most people. Offering leadership to others, as a contribution which helps them to achieve those rewards, is a great motivation in itself.

In both roles, then - leader and follower - there is a base biological motive and a separate psychological fulfillment which is gained from participating in the team. These two motives are not independent but they are distinct. And leadership outside of a subsistence environment requires delivering to both motivations.

The importance of this relationship in human society is immense. Think of the passions aroused by the leadership of football teams or of political parties. The crew and captain of the Argo or the soldiers and general in Napoleon's army are archetypal examples of human interaction. So an understanding of the mechanisms and patterns of leadership is crucial to operating successfully in society.

Thus, finally, to the heart of this article: How do people lead people? By now you know the answer. In the most successful groups, people lead people:

  • By articulating an purpose
  • By guiding people's behaviour to be consistent with the purpose
  • By ensuring that each team member achieves the personal rewards that make it worthwhile for them to participate

To the extent that these qualities exist within your team, leadership is present. Leadership is a powerful and mysterious force, and when you understand where it comes from, you know how to make it work better. I invite you to join me in exploring this exciting terrain.

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