She leads, we follow.

May 14th, 2010

Real change is never a one-person show.  Real change happens when the work of formal leaders—leaders in the center—is complemented by the work of leaders on the margin.

In any significant movement for change, whether in business, politics, or larger society, the person who holds the mantle of leadership can only accomplish so much on his or her own.  For example, when Dorothy Height died last month, I was reminded in reading her obituary how her leadership shaped the direction of the civil rights movement, even though she did not have the widespread name recognition of Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks or Julian Bond.  We properly celebrate the accomplishments of high profile positional leaders, but we are less adept at understanding the leadership in the background.

What can we learn about great leaders on the margin, leaders like the most influential First Ladies?  First, they are smart, skillful and savvy.  Leading from the margin means having a clear vision of what happens in the mainstream.  People on the margin observe and reflect, often having fewer options to act because they have less access to tangible resources.  But when they do get the chance to make a difference, they put what they have learned into action.

Second, they lead through referent power—power derived from integrity, admiration and respect—rather than formal power bestowed on them by their position.  A slightly oversimplified example: President Obama is the Commander-in-Chief, and when he issues an order, it must be obeyed because he is the boss.  First lady Obama may not get things done only because she orders it (though I’m sure she has some juice).  She likely also gets things done because she garners a high degree of respect and esteem.  That’s what referent power is all about.  And by the way, referent power is an almost bottomless well of power.  As long as a leader exhibits integrity and skill, people will follow her or him anywhere.  Once that integrity is damaged, the power base disintegrates.  As a corollary,  leaders from the margin influence and leverage networks of critically important players who help them achieve their objectives.

Finally, leaders from the margin can see the world in a way that most people do not and that often makes them especially innovative.  They are not as restricted in their thinking by conventional rules and norms.  They can focus their energies on critical issues that are often overlooked or undervalued by the majority in the center.  Their unique perspective is honed by lots of experience studying the dominant leaders and decision-makers and capitalizing on their blind spots.  This makes leaders from the margin among the most valuable catalysts for real change in any organization or society.

NOTE: On this topic, my colleague, Erika Hayes James will be teaching a new Executive Education class at Darden, October 11-15, 2010 called “Women Emerging in Leadership.”  If you are a woman at any level of management, or aspiring to be, please consider attending this valuable course from the top ranked Executive Education program in the world. For more information, contact Darden’s Executive Education department.

One Response to “She leads, we follow.”

  1. Joanne Martin says:

    Michelle Obama is much admired and deservedly so in many ways, BUT are we losing sight of the fact that this extremely well educated lawyer, with a strong resume of leadership positions, and has severely restricted her focus to traditional “womens’ issues” since she has been in the White House? She has concentrated (to much acclaim) on her daughters (“being a mother is my first job”) and other peoples’ children (their education and nutrition and health). These are undoubtably important priorities and issues but why is this her focus, her only focus other than fashion (which I admit is fun)? Is this politically all the American people will accept from our First Ladies? Or from our first African-American First Lady? Remember the outcry of disapproval when Hillary Clinton, then First Lady, made a disparaging remark about being expected to supply a cookie recipe? Are we wasting Michelle’s talents by being so approving of her traditional First Lady restricted focus? Should we be singing her praises for her current behavior or lamenting the way we and she have limited her scope?

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