Stop LEADING, Start FOLLOWING!

Otti Vogt
10 min readJul 14, 2022

OR: THE LEADER WHO POINTED A FINGER…

Do you remember Steve Covey’s seminal Seven Habits? There was a time during the 1990ies when it was one of my favorite management books. If you happen to remember it, you might also recall his memorable story about the difference between management and leadership. At some point Steve writes: whilst MANAGERS are cutting a path through the woods, busily seeking to organise their work efficiently…“the LEADER is the one who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation, and yells, ‘WRONG JUNGLE!’”

This was one of my all-time favorite leadership quotes, right up there with J.Q. Adams’s “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.”; and Jack Welsh’s “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others”. Yes, I know, I’m forever tainted by Anglo-Saxon business education!

By the way, the tale continued: “… Busy, efficient producers and managers often respond… ‘SHUT UP! We’re making progress!’” Boy, did we, the alleged ‘future leaders’, feel smug about ourselves!

Alas, what’s the big deal, you might say — a few innocuous quotes… Well, I tend to disagree. I have a suspicion that those narratives and metaphors are very important. These stories and myths we get told and tell ourselves, especially during our formative years, fundamentally shape how we think, how we make meaning, how we construct our identities, and, ultimately, how we act. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that in those years, and for a few decades afterwards (sic!), I desperately wanted to be that visionary, inspirational, self-less (well, probably in a rather immature way) and heroic leader! In hindsight, I can only say: mistakes were made!

In fact, in retrospective I’m pretty certain that those were not very “good” quotes. Beside the fact that when I was young I had many answers, and now, being old, I’ve got lots of questions… I do believe that those citations emblematically oversimplify what leadership should be about, and how to go about it… Let me explain.

Apart from the triumphantly nonsensical juxtaposition of leadership vs management, which Henry Mintzberg so eloquently unravels; apart from an immensely detrimental reification of leadership that has so dramatically misled the whole leadership genre — crowding out alternative discourses and forcing important dynamics of organisational life into the shadow (think about: pride, power, patriarchy, anxiety, vulnerability); apart from the simplistic and neo-liberal caricaturisation of the economy as a “competitive jungle”; and apart from unduly sustaining a “heroic” and arrogant leadership discourse that cements narcissism, developmental immaturity, positional power and eventually the status quo… apart from all of this, there’s something else.

Think about that first quote again: whilst everybody is literally lost in the weeds, the leader rises up the ladder, scours the horizon and… points to the truth. (By the way, this image might be recalling both the “hero” as well as the “saint” leadership metaphor, by Mats Alvesson’s definition). My question is: what does this image teach us about how good leadership is developed? There could be different ways to read the metaphor, and we have tried them all:

  • 1) Traditionally, we have sought to analyse the personal characteristics of that single, glorious leader and tried to develop them (note: this is the leadership “trait theory”)
  • 2) When that did not quite work, we started to analyse the behaviour of the leader, i.e., how he [sic!] chose his direction, rallied his people, communicated the new course (so-called leadership “style theory”)
  • 3) Thereafter, we situated the climbing of the ladder in the context of the ‘type of jungle’, the ‘task at hand’, the ‘position of the leader’ and the ‘environment’ in order to derive those factors that made his leadership successful (this was called “contingency theory”);
  • 4) Finally, we looked at the “mindset” of the leader — how he lifted himself beyond the thicket of the fixed and mundane, climbing that “ladder of consciousness”, in order to discover the endless ‘forest for the trees’ (i.e., “cognitive development theory”).

What unites all of these approaches is that the lens of analysis is fixed on the leader: on the leader himself, his behaviour, his-strategy-in-context, his mindset. And I will argue that most of these interpretations — at least in part — are missing a point. Leadership is not just about the leader. Good leadership is about making a new potential reality possible; about transforming the capacity of an organisation “to become” its own best future.

In other words, and to stay with the image, it is about the “pointing of the finger”. Gert Biesta calls the symbolic act of “pointing” an existential “gesture of disruption”. It is not about the leader, nor about the direction itself, but about the interruption of my current reality. The leader’s motion makes ME pay attention to something important. I am pulled out of my habitual behaviour to notice something that summons me— the organisation or the individual — into my being, to take a stand and make important choices. That very act of interruption opens a crevice of potentiality, an affordance of becoming, of renovation, of nativity.

To be clear, the effectiveness of such an act of interruption isn’t dependent on the leader’s cognitive intelligence in discerning a specific new course or in providing definite answers; it rather relates to the sensual capacity of the leader to redirect my awareness towards something that has significance, and that calls me to revise my relationship and relatedness with the world. Something that challenges my identity and behaviours, opening up important questions about my Self-in-world — thus enhancing my freedom to ‘be’.

Rather than pompously crying out “wrong jungle!”, a better leader might have just been silently pointing at that ladder. That’s why Leadership is an ‘existentially ethical’ process. It is not just about “how we SEE things”, i.e., about discovering a new map of the territory — what we call “constructivism”, or popularly known as “consciousness”. Within such an epistemology, the enlightened individual always remains an ‘ego in the centre’, busily constructing the world in their mind. It is also about a phenomenological “being-in-relation” with the world, about being pulled into the world. That disruptive pointer is not innocuous. It carries the irritating demand of the world not to lead, but to follow — to step responsibly into my fullest freedom. It seeks to enable an organisation or individual to learn “how to BECOME ”, growing their innate capacity to act, contribute to, and step into the aliveness of their lifeworld. The gesture of a good leader, much like a good teacher, calls me to look out to the world, and for the world. Such an existential request can ever only work as a gift — it manifests its charism when it arrives without chains of command or control attached. When it reveals itself as a transcendental “us”, the primordial energy of life…

Back to that initial story of the leader climbing the ladder. It provides a seductively simple image. And for many years it has shaped my thinking about what it means — and what is expected of me — to be a good leader. But it is not the only way to look at leadership and we must carefully explore other stories, even those that do not frequently get told, because they might be more complicated and less compelling.

In this context, I recall being in a meeting at the Institute of Directors in London with Nigel Farage, pre-Brexit. After an hour into his talk I was both hugely impressed and utterly frightened by the brilliant simplicity of his arguments to leave the EU. His reasons were utterly flawed, even deceitful, but nevertheless powerful and persuasive. The room was boiling with energy! In comparison, all the necessary counterarguments I could think of— albeit more truthful and accurate — sounded dry, complicated and lifeless. And as we know, the Brexiteers won. Narratives are powerful, even when they are wrong.

Maybe we must purposefully re-examine our accumulated truths, stories and favourite quotes once in a while to ensure we are not unwittingly perpetuating an ineffective gospel. On that note, dear Steve, it’s time to move on from your forest. But my most sincere thanks go to you, nevertheless! You’ve provided that initial pointer that made me want to become the ‘best leader I could be’ and I haven’t stopped trying ever since. And I reckon that is truly a story that never ends…

COMMENTS & CLARIFICATIONS: Many people came back and suggested that the “pointing of the finger” could be interpreted in many less positive ways, or that Stephen Covey had written a very good book. I reckon herein lies the difficult of bringing across different “epistemological paradigms” that are “deconstructed” in the story. Hence, I will offer a few of the comments here that might help to clarify the deeper philosophical implications (as far as I understand them myself)…

Q: Pointing the finger can mean so many things — is it to the vision, the culprit, the success, the mistake. Does pointing the finger mean the leader knows it all?

A: You’re absolutely right — and to a degree that’s on purpose ie the gesture is “disruptive” in many ways because it is ambiguous.

Q: I still like the quotes, pausing for an overview before acting, walking the talk, and developing yourself, still rings true. But I am totally with you, that our understanding of leadership has deepened and evolved. And even more, I absolutely agree, that our stories shape our thinking and actions and what kind of person we become.

A: With this piece, and I made some alterations to the story to make the challenge clearer, we are entering into a conversation about post-structuralism (Levinas, Derrida, Foucault etc) — and their fundamental challenge of a constructivist epistemology. The whole idea of the narrative that we use to make meaning of our identity is being deconstructed and replaced by a primordial “ethics of subjectivity”. I have not been very good at bringing this out as I started the piece with an image, but the challenge here is even more fundamental.

Q: I also love those quotes. When we point a finger as you say it can have many implications and meanings and we must not forget (point a finger out in front of you), when we do this, we have 3 fingers curled back in our palm pointing back to ourselves.

A: Very true! Yet, sadly, here I’m failing to bring across the depth of the argument as it’s not quite about the finger but about epistemology :-). It’s a question how “we become” and the post structuralists deconstruct the idea that we create meaning by hermeneutical interpretation of reality in our own mind — which was the key idea of constructivists and structuralists. Their notion instead is phenomenological, ie that our being is “in the world” and not an act of our sense-making. On that basis, a gesture of disruption summons us to our primordial existential being, before any constructed identity. Therefore, so they argue, ethics is the first philosophy, as we only exist in relation to others. We find our freedom in the irreplaceable uniqueness for the “Other”, not in “ego-logical consciousness”. To note — Problem with consciousness is that we are always necessarily in the centre of our own reality, also called relativism. So the “gesture of disruption”, the pointing towards something that wants our awareness in and for the world, is the only way to truly transform…

Q: As soon as we start talking about pointing the finger I start to get uncomfortable. How is the conception of leadership as some ONE pointing the way, not a perpetuation of leader as saviour or messiah?

A: To a degree, I chose the image on purpose because it creates resistance, wonder, disruption. I want to signal “hermeneutic certainty” and then create the “violence of deconstruction”. That said, the picture and the philosophy which I tried to represent here is complicated, to say the least. To a degree what it suggests is that we need to remain vulnerable to be taught. We need to be open to the disruption of our thinking. The leader who points the finger is not a hero, because you’re not looking at him or her, and neither at their finger, you’re not trying to be like them or follow to where they point. They’re pointing to something that for you, and just you, might be meaningful. Something that causes a question, rather than provide an answer. Something that just for you might create a summoning to step deeper into the world, to rethink who you are and why, to reposition yourself. That’s far away from that heroic knight charging into battle. Rather, it is a caring jester, a pattern breaker, a teacher, an “ironist” who cares deeply about your growth and knows that sometimes what irritates you, will tell you most about ourselves. That sometimes they must point a finger, to get you thinking about how that finger is not what it seems to be…

Q: Stephen Covey was one of the first business consultants to advocate for goodness in leadership. Heroism certainly is not what Covey is or more accurately, was or represented.

A: I am sure that is true, but I must admit this story — in spite of the starting question — was not about Steve Covey! I could have chosen any other quote that offered a metaphor for leadership that — in my interpretation — became problematic. It was about my sense-making from metaphors and quotes (as they say: “they are no indecent books, only indecent readers!”), and eventually about the post-structural challenge to the epistemology of “constructivist” sense-making. Whilst popular, “consciousness” or constructivism is not the only — and from Levina’s perspective, a flawed access to truth and ethics. So, Steve Covey has certainly written a wonderful book, but for many reasons — not even specifically this one quote — today the system and language I use is not his anymore. Be Proactive, Begin With the End in Mind. Put First Things First, Think Win-Win, Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood, Synergize, Sharpen the Saw — are useful principles, but in my perspective do not offer a coherent path towards wisdom. But, of course, that does not imply that I suggest Steve is supportive of a heroic image of leadership, or is behaving heroically — that would be, pardon the pun, like “looking at the finger”, rather then towards where the gesture points. Maybe I need to make this clearer!

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Otti Vogt

Disruptive thinker, amateur poet and passionate global C-level transformation leader with over 20 years of experience in cross-cultural strategic change