We are all leaders (even the ridiculous)

Week eight


I took a voiceover class this week simply because I was interested. Coincidentally, or not given a valuable lesson often resonates in multiple areas of life, many of the takeaways for the voice class echo my present thoughts and final reflections on the past eight weeks of my doctorate program. Considering key learnings, the role of leadership in the digital age and the various resources consumed throughout, the following points spring to mind:

  • Technology made the world flatter, yet peaks and valleys still remain. How they look and how easy they are to traverse depends on where you begin.
  • The words and knowledge do not do the work. Your tone and actions do.
  • There are new tools everyday. You do not need to work harder or smarter, which implies you were doing neither in the first place, but you may need to work differently.
  • You are not striving to be declared good whether as an artist, businessperson, human or leader. Know what you have, and own what you are.

In some ways, I end where I began. The Siberian unicorn does not look like the mythological one, but it was nonetheless a unicorn. Leadership takes many forms, and does not always appear as we expect it to either. Technology, particularly as applied to leadership, can be used to achieve positive and/or negative outcomes, and in almost all cases, amplifies the benefits and/or consequences of either usage.

The growing movement to redefine leadership, or expand its definition, is not necessarily offering us a new definition. The Jesuits faced parallels to our digital age approximately 450 years ago. They believed then that everyone is a leader, leading at all times, with leadership springing from within rather than bestowed upon (Lowney, 2003). I appreciate Martin’s (2015) thoughts on the need to redefine leadership as moving from the role of hero to host. We have been too long caught up in the cult of personality, of leader as hero, making all others followers. While everything human is cyclical to a degree, modern context moves us toward the more inclusive, expansive, and correct definition. Technology connects us and speeds up change. Formerly obscure leadership becomes more visible. There is an even greater need to adapt and remain flexible.

There were also surprises between the beginning and end. Traditional, organizational Knowledge Management as we knew it may be dead, but it exists now in another form. Knowledge lives in and is increasingly created by the network (Weinberger, 2011). Instead of knowledge management, it is more aptly today knowledge leadership. The Internet is changing the nature of work for many (the voiceover class offering yet more proof, as the industry pro teaching it described spending four to five hours once upon a time for an audition that now requires mere minutes). However, that does not mean it has touched all roles. At least, it has not touched them all yet and certainly not equally. Husband’s (2017) wirearchy perfectly describes the shift away from hierarchical organizational structures and legacy keepers of knowledge. Martin (2015) discussed this as well in describing the leader as host. And while I have long been a technology fan, I would not say I was blind to the pitfalls. However, I considered in a deeper way than ever before just how dangerous technology can be if we do not take the time now to implement ethics. It feels daunting, imagining working to conceive an ethical framework that the world would agree to, with sufficient oversight ongoing. But the alternative is chaos.

Quite a few of Martin’s (2015) ideas regarding leadership continue to bounce around, writing this final class post. The author quoted Drucker regarding the difference between management and leadership: “Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things.” The notion of leaders as managers, and how or even if we distinguish this, came up in my world as recently as today. I am attending an internal development class on extraordinary performance. We were shown in it photos of Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, and Michael Jordan and asked to comment on characteristics that make these three extraordinary. Words were flying. When then asked a pointed question as to whether these three were senior leaders, some members of the class defaulted to the old definition, saying “no” because they did not manage people as a result of title or lead anyone officially.

Martin (2015) discussed also our practice of venerating winners. This is everywhere, from our presidential election to those often rewarded in business. I find it remarkable to see it even in small, inconsequential acts. For example, I note our quirky, human habit of clapping for winners, even winners of raffle prizes. Raffle winners have done absolutely nothing to earn their reward other than show up, but yet, it seems we are compelled to applaud them. Maybe we simply cannot stand the silence, but once I started watching for this, I have seen it occur in the last 15 out of 15 raffle situations at which I have been present. And while humanity does love a good underdog story, the caveat is that we love the underdog who becomes a winner. We either do not hear or do not care about the ones who do not.

Leadership in the digital age is more of that which was always useful. It is collaborative. It facilitates knowledge transfer to build individual and collective knowledge. It is agile and can adapt as new situations and unforeseen opportunities and challenges arise. It is not without its cautions though. Again quoting Shirky (2014), “Abundance breaks more things than scarcity.” We are in a relatively abundant age. When it feels as though resources are many, we risk laziness. We risk losing knowledge. We risk being ill prepared when abundance does break something. Despite the awareness and some caution leaders must have in the digital age, I end on an overall positive note. Our view of leadership is trending toward diverse, and technology is helping us get there. Leaders are responsible for the present and future, and the good news is, we are all leaders and therefore all responsible. This is true however ridiculous we leaders might sometimes look.


Husband, J. (2017). What is wierarchy? Wirearchy. Retrieved from http://wirearchy.com/what-is-wirearchy/

Lowney, C. (2003). Heroic leadership: Best practices from a 450 year old company that changed the world [Kindle version]. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com

Martin, M. (2015, December 4). A deep dive into thinking about 21st century leadership. The Bamboo Project. Retrieved from http://www.michelemmartin.com/thebambooprojectblog/2015/12/work-in-progress-the-leadership-lab.html

Shirky, C., & Chui, M. (2014, March). The disruptive power of collaboration: An interview with Clay Shirkey. McKinsey&Company. Retrieved from http://www.mckinsey.com/industries/high-tech/our-insights/the-disruptive-power-of-collaboration-an-interview-with-clay-shirky

Weinberger, D. (2011). Too big to know: Rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room [Kindle version]. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/

13 thoughts on “We are all leaders (even the ridiculous)

  1. Good afternoon,
    I would like to start off by saying that one of the first things to speak to me was your four points. You did an excellent job of articulating your thoughts. I could not agree more with your observations. I do have one question in relation to your comments about the pitfalls of technology. Specifically, you mention the importance of an ethical framework with technology and if ethics was not involved, the alternative would be chaos. When you mention chaos, what is it that you envision happening?
    Thank you,


    1. Keshia, thank you for your comments and the question. Regarding the potential for chaos, worst case is the world ending because an AI is built without rules that protect human existence and/or AI is created specifically to destroy as in intelligent weapons (Cuthbertson, 2017).

      Without ethics in place, the best case is widespread confusion. For example, the self driving car technology being developed now requires that the technology be programmed to make a choice as to who lives or dies in a nearly inconceivable variety of scenarios. An article in the MIT Technology Review (2015) noted in this one area alone, we enter a “fiendishly complex moral maze.” For even if most people would agree it is better for the car to kill the owner if it means saving many, no one would want to drive a car programmed to sacrifice its occupant.

      Cuthbertson, A. (2017, January 31). Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking warn of Artificial Intelligence arms race. Newsweek. Retrieved from http://www.newsweek.com/ai-asilomar-principles-artificial-intelligence-elon-musk-550525
      Emerging Technology from the arXiv (2015, October 22). Why self-driving cars must be programmed to kill. MIT Technology Review. Retrieved from https://www.technologyreview.com/s/542626/why-self-driving-cars-must-be-programmed-to-kill/



  2. Good afternoon,

    Thank you for your contributions in the class. I was intrigued by your description of the leader in this post and how leadership has been redefined. I tend to agree both with you and with Martin that for too long leaders were identified by strong personalities and were assumed to be the chief holders of knowledge. I wonder, though, if you think we can take this point even further. At this point, can we change the business model to remove the leader from the equation? As we must now rely on many members of the organization to gather information and provide solutions, does the tradiitonal pyramid structure no longer make business sense? Does it put too many barriers in the way of the growth of all members of an organization? I would love to hear your thoughts.

    The Ayes Have It


    1. Ayes, thank you for your comments and many contributions over the last eight weeks. Regarding your question, I have a couple of thoughts. I do not think we want to remove leaders from the equation. We need them always if in a different capacity then they are in name serving organizations currently. However, if you are asking whether we can adjust the model so that leader by title, as CEO and/or manager is removed, then I would say yes.

      It is really tempting to fall back on norms and say no. It is uncomfortable to imagine no one as final decision maker. But if I consider my specific function, I can see eliminating the traditional manager role and things still working fine if not better. Considering the resource Dr. Watwood added on flipping the hierarchy along with the extraordinary performer course I referenced in my post, it seems even more realistic. For instance, I have a manager who has a manager and so on. It feels though that our existing communications hierarchy within the organization is intended to provide support versus direct.

      The 360 degrees of feedback I received as part of the extraordinary performer course reveal data inline with this reality. With a manager, peer, and an “other” category, feedback received indicated to me that I am generally concerned with the right things. I can be because the structure supports this. On a scale of one to five, with three intended to mean doing one’s job, the manager category gave me the most threes. Management seems to view me as performing. Were this to be higher, it would say to me that I spend more time showcasing my work than doing my work.

      My peer group, which was comprised entirely of other communicators in my network who I do not work for but work most with in terms of sharing and creating knowledge, gave me the highest results across the board with a number of fives. I imagine this is because they thoroughly understand the job and because we engage the most. I am making the decisions for my markets, but I rarely make them without tapping my resources. The “other” group had the most variety in terms of rating, including some “needs improvement,” and averaged as a whole at four. Others are essentially my “clients” or the colleagues I provide communications support to. So, they have less awareness for the job being done and/or the many others also requesting support, but averaged out, they have a fairly positive view of the support they are receiving.

      Though only one anecdote, the above tells me that yes, we could officially eliminate the traditional leader class and function well with the right team and culture in place. If worried less about pleasing the person above and able to focus on doing the right things, many barriers to growth are removed.



  3. I love the unicorn theme throughout your blog this semester! It’s creative and memorable.
    Also, very interesting to read a bit more about the Siberian Unicorn just now. I was a huge dinosaur nerd when I was little… wanted to be a paleontologist, and ended up a leadership scholar 🙂

    I very much appreciate the approach/metaphor you’ve been taking to redefining leadership. The contrast between heroic leadership and the distributed, situational leadership in the networked world is stark. But, a leader is a leader, right? We certainly know that’s not the case. I am so grateful for the opportunity to study leadership at this high level, as it allows us to see the nuances, comparisons, contrasts, and functional benefits of each. I’ve loved thinking about what leadership means in the network, and you’ve hit on some of the most fundamental points here.

    I totally agree with your conclusion as well – that we are all “leaders” when the need arises. Technology, I believe, has amplified this, but not necessarily changed the core concept. It’s more visible, and perhaps more challenging to folks that might have preferred to hide in the shadows. In this case, how do you think we can soften the blow for folks who don’t think of themselves as leaders or who believe they aren’t quite “ready” to lead?


    1. James, thank you! I was also a dinosaur nerd growing up. Sue, the largest T. rex discovered, is visiting Boise right now!

      Your question is interesting. I am inclined to say we do not worry about softening the blow for those who do not think of themselves as leaders. This is because it suggests to me that we are trying to force these folks to operate in the traditional sense versus allowing them to continue operating and contributing as they are. It seems we might be saying that if we do not see their leadership, it did not happen. I say this knowing your question is voiced with positive intent.

      I think about all of the times in my early career, when I would hear “be more vocal” simply for the sake of being more visible. I was never not contributing. I was just doing so in a quieter way. I think about Claudette Colvin, who as a 15 year old, refused to move to the back of the bus nearly a full year before Rosa Parks. Why did we hear about Rosa and not Claudette? Claudette, for various reasons, was not deemed appropriate to be the face of this aspect of the movement. Though they did the same thing, in the same city and bus system, Rosa coming later was perceived to be the better leader. Was Claudette upset her contribution was ignored? I know I cannot speak for her, but I would venture to say probably not. I doubt she did what she did to be recognized (Adler, 2009). Do we as fellow humans suffer from not knowing about Claudette? Speaking for myself, yes. While there is ample material now if one searches, I only heard her name because of a random mention in a fictional TV show I happened to be watching. However, I recognize that because of the way I view and value leadership, I will never know about all of the many leadership moments happening around me every single day.

      With all of that said, I suppose the best way to soften the blow would be for us to stop trying to make people behave contrary to their nature in order to recognize them as leaders. We let folks lead in their own way even if that means we do not officially see and recognize it. Like Shelli noted, a lot happens that goes unnoticed. Perhaps instead of softening the blow, we work to change our view. We work to see as much as we can if only because it makes us all better.

      Adler, M. (2009, March 15). Before Rosa Parks, there was Claudette Colvin. NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2009/03/15/101719889/before-rosa-parks-there-was-claudette-colvin



  4. Unicorn Magis,

    In my post, I said that leadership happens at all levels of the organization. Your statement “Leadership takes many forms and does not always appear as we expect it to either” is a better description. I think sometimes the leadership that happens unexpected ways goes unnoticed. This happens in the classroom often, by the student that ask the question most students are thinking. Or the student that helps their classmate that is drowning. These acts often go unnoticed but they absolutely moments of leadership.



    1. Shelli, thank you… I appreciate the small acts you outlined. It is somewhat like the tree falling in the forest. Did the tree make a sound if no one heard it fall? Did leadership occur if no one witnessed it? I agree with you. The answer is yes. Leadership happened. It is the act that matters not the seeing of it.

      I also believe that good followership is its own kind of leadership. Perhaps we need to categorize followers and leaders for the sake of examining important attributes when one is performing in either role, which we are doing all of the time, interchangeably. Good followers are also leading. Good leaders are also following. An engaged and energetic follower is leading others by example. An effective leader is taking cues from everyone (Kellerman, 2007).

      Kellerman, B. (2007, December). What every leader needs to know about followers. HBR. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2007/12/what-every-leader-needs-to-know-about-followers



  5. Julie,

    Great and interesting post, as usual! There is so much here to agree with. I was reminded of Weinberger’s (2011) chapter on “science” in which he discussed the long-held value of amateurs’ roles…that “truth is truth, no matter who utters it” (p. 131). It seems the same can be said of leadership that has evolved beyond the traditional role-specific or hierarchical constructs: leadership is leadership, no matter who is doing the leading. I think there is great promise in a flatter leadership environment like this, in terms of a richness that will impact the organization’s operations…and move well beyond that. Best wishes as you continue on this journey!



    1. EA, thank you for the comments. I love your call out regarding flattened leadership. We have had the opportunity to discuss how technology flattened the world, and it is interesting to consider how it has specifically made leadership flat. It is likely difficult for existing organizations to adjust given the deep cultural changes that are required, but newer, emerging companies seem well positioned to build a transparent, connected, and an empowered team to take advantage of the flatter world and organizational structure (Giang, 2015). I agree there is a lot of promise!

      Giang, V. (2015, May 19). What kind of leadership is needed in flat hierarchies? Fast Company. Retrieved from https://www.fastcompany.com/3046371/the-new-rules-of-work/what-kind-of-leadership-is-needed-in-flat-hierarchies



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