Leadership – a role and relationship conferred by followers

I read “Moby-Dick” recently for the first time – all 691 pages.   Like many others I knew the plot before reading the book – at least I thought so. I discovered that Herman Melville’s novel is a religious and philosophical allegory adapted from a real event as told in “In The Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex,” by Nathaniel Philbrick.

Melville described the protagonist Ahab as the ‘monomaniacal’ captain of the Pequod. Having lost his leg in a previous hunt for Moby Dick, the great white whale, Ahab is on a quest for vengeance.   In the second encounter as told in the novel, the Pequod, including Captain Ahab and the crew, were destroyed by the whale – save Ishmael who alone survived to tell the story.

Which raised two leadership questions for me –

  1. how and when do people in authority or responsibility become leaders?
  2. how and when do they forfeit their leadership?

Even though a captain, Ahab was not necessarily a leader. So it is with all captains, presidents, officers, CEO’s, superintendents, executive directors, even teachers and pastors, etc.

At some point those entrusted with responsibility and authority must earn the privilege to be considered leaders.   We might even say that no one should self-designate as a leader. Leadership is role and relationship conferred by followers in response to trust and selfless service.

Only those who are trustworthy are thought of as leaders.   Trust is the confidence that one’s word is as good as a bond.   We want our leaders to serve without hidden agendas or mental reservations, loyal to the mission to which we are committed.

Equally important is selfless service to followers and the common mission.   Self-serving bosses and authorities may be followed out of coercion or necessity but we don’t consider them our leaders.   Leaders are those we follow because we want to, not because we have to. We follow those who place our welfare and the welfare of society before their own.

Many behavior patterns advance or detract from leadership effectiveness, but these two – trust and selfless service – are the qualities by which we decide who we will or will not follow, regardless of position and authority.

Captain Ahab was a leader once, a skilled skipper who knew how to navigate the oceans and manage a diverse crew on a multi-year voyage hunting down whales and harvesting their oil.   Given his competence the owners trusted him with the stewardship of their ship.  The ill-fated crew put their lives on the line for him.   Yet soon after they left port they knew that self-interest rather than the welfare of the crew and the mission of the Pequod drove Ahab.

First mate Starbuck had thoughts of confronting Ahab, even wresting control of the Pequod, which would not be considered mutiny since Ahab had sabotaged the mission and was willing to sacrifice the crew.   But Starbuck lacked the courage to challenge the captain.   He paid for it with his life. “Moby-Dick” is a story of failed followership as well as failed leadership.

Leadership can be forfeited as well as conferred.   It is not a talent or skill that one can prepare for and claim like a degree.   It is more than competence.   One would hardly say I am a leader looking for a position or seeking a following.   We hope those in positions of authority and responsibility come to be recognized and supported for their leadership, but it is not always so.

Leadership then is the by-product of trust and selfless service.   Even though we may refer to those with authority and responsibility as leaders, e.g., ‘our elected leaders,’ they do not bear the mantel of leadership until trusted to serve the common good.

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One Response to Leadership – a role and relationship conferred by followers

  1. Gerald Smith says:

    Excellent article Tom. Thank you!

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