Lead: “to guide on a way especially by going in advance; to be first in or among; to have charge of” (Merriam-Webster).

To lead is to be in front, to command, to influence others by wielding authority or rank or power. Leadership suggests distance — spatial distance (the leader in front, the followers behind), power distance, knowledge distance and economic distance.

Although leaders can influence others through modeling positive communication or by encouraging service or social change — as a servant leader — when we think of leadership, we commonly think of a person who is both different and distant from others — a cut above.

In this year of pandemic, social unrest and political polarization, let us reconsider our worship of leadership.

The Fog of Leadership

Amazon lists over 50,000 books on leadership, and Harvard Business Review shows more than 28,000 hits for the search term “leadership.” Ironically, as important as effective leadership seems to be for high-functioning organizations of any kind or size, it is difficult for two or more people to agree on what great leadership looks like or even what counts as leadership. Compare the following set of four effective leadership qualities proposed by two of the top global consulting firms:

McKinsey and Company (2015):

    • Is supportive.
    • Operates with a “strong results orientation.”
    • “[Seeks] different perspectives.”
    • “[Solves] problems effectively.”

Boston Consulting Group (2020):

    • “[Strives] to defy the average.”
    • “[Identifies] key moves and [acts] preemptively.”
    • “[Takes] a de-averaged and dynamic approach to strategy.”
    • “[Articulates] and [fulfills] a positive social purpose.”

Leadership as Distraction

Not only is our understanding of leadership opaque and disparate, but our tenuous connection with leadership as a concept has been captured by the politicization of so many other areas of our lives in 2020.

Is better leadership really what we need to reform outdated, inequitable and broken social structures and systems? Will more transformational, more ethical, more stakeholder-sensitive leadership reduce corporate greed, promote inclusion, reform partisan politics, increase educational and economic equity, and bring us the meaningful changes that many of us hope for?

Is it possible that the crisis of leadership we tend to perceive in business, civil society, public health and government springs from our long-held assumption that “good leadership” is the remedy to the problems we face — when what we actually need is not leadership but something else?

From Leadership to Engagement

I believe that better leaders are not what we need. Instead, we need better engagers.

Engage: “to offer something; to interlock with; to bind someone to do something, to hold the attention of; to induce to participate; to bring together or interlock; to give attention to something” (Merriam-Webster).

This is not an entirely new insight. A 2014 Harvard Business Review piece titled “What Makes Someone an Engaging Leader” by Ken Oehler, Lorraine Stomski and Magdalena Kustra-Olszewska of AON Hewitt stated that “engagement is a leadership responsibility.”

So, what might be some qualities of an engager that are different from our core assumptions of leader qualities, and how might engagers offer us a more productive and sustainable way forward?

Admiral James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, argues that effective leadership hinges on a character of service, demonstrated through empathy, humility, creativity, resilience, honesty and curiosity. In his book “Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character,” Stavridis writes that “character is at its heart the ability to lead the inner self toward what is just and right.”

Notice that in Stavridis’ definition of leadership as mindful character and service, he does not mention power or distance. His concern is with development and demonstration of “true north” character that attracts and engages others who share aspirations for honorable action and positive change. Yes, there will always be self-interested or unethical engagers — the deceptive salesperson, the swindler and the despot — and we need to check our compasses when we encounter them and deny their harmful intentions. I am arguing here for embracing not all engagers but, rather, “true north” servant engagers of high moral character.

Engagers Close the Distance

Engagement does not suggest distance in the ways that leadership does. Engagers are inclusive, passionate, strategic, ethical and caring storytellers and connectors of people, ideas and possibilities.

Here’s an example: If our current political life is characterized by polarization (distance), an engaged political system would highlight discussion and collaboration with the goal of increasing equity, health, economic prosperity, happiness, safety, education and environmental sustainability.

Engaged corporate executives would, at least, recognize that the perks they receive based on title (e.g., the corner office, expense accounts, compensation) do little to close the distance between them and other organizational members. In the best case, chief executive officers would listen, ask questions, and manage and participate actively in organizational narratives to increase and sustain value of various kinds for all stakeholders.

Engaged civic institutions would champion the creation of reimagined and rebuilt structures and practices, including law enforcement and voting.

Engaged education would promote compassion, caring and courage as learning or development outcomes in addition to skills in math, languages and sciences, and job skills.

Engagers are stewards of ethical practices who prioritize social, national and global interests over self-interests. They care enough about their communities, their country and the world that they find ways to advance positive social change. Engagers don’t lead; they attract others into their orbit in the service of passionately promoting good works for good causes without concern for privilege or power.

Bring on the engagers.