What’s the one thing that unites all leaders? Responsibility, status, efficiency, empathy, inspiration? None of the above: the one thing that unites all leaders is that they have followers.
When we talk about ‘leadership’ in a work environment, we usually mean what psychiatrist Eric Berne called the “Responsible Leader”, the designated person who bears official responsibility. They have a title, and usually a pay grade, that reflects their status; the buck stops with them. The followers, in a sense, come with the job.
Berne identified two other types of leader: what he called the “Effective Leader”, someone who’s typically been around a long time, knows the official and unofficial systems, the fix-it person who just knows how to get things done. This is the person who can take a vision, or an ask, and bring it to life.
Most importantly for this discussion, Berne also described the “Psychological Leader”, the person who is perceived as the ‘heart & soul’ of the organization; the go-to person when there’s something to celebrate or some kind of turbulence happening; the person who may not have a lot of official status but who has a huge degree of influence. In other words, the Psychological Leader has genuine followers, not just on paper.
If you think this sounds like a lot of work for one person, you’re right: finding this trio of skills in one person is very rare. The Responsible Leader may genuinely be open to engaging in two-way dialogue with their, but unless they are also perceived as the Psychological Leader, they might find nobody seeks them out for sharing victories or seeking advice through difficulties. Does this mean nobody has anything to say? Probably not: their colleague who is perceived as the Psychological Leader most likely has a constant stream of people at their desk or at the coffee machine or in the pub or wherever informal communication happens in their organization.
Rather than perceiving this as a threat, this can be an opportunity for the Responsible Leader to gain insight into organizational currents of information and power by allowing the trusted Psychological Leader to act as a conduit for this information. This will enable the team to feel comfortable opening up and being truly honest about what’s going on.
For this to work well, it’s crucial that the Responsible Leader & Psychological Leader are acting in concert rather than competition: if there is rivalry or tension between the two, no matter how well disguised, this will spiral out into the organization and cause bigger ripples of conflict further down, as Patrick Lencioni describes in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.
Do you know what kind of leader you are? If not, how could you find out? Has your leadership style changed over the past few months? If so, what are you trying which is different to what you were doing before? What would you like to keep in your new leadership style?