Leadership on the job is rare, but talk about it is ubiquitous. Companies talk about it all the time.
The talk is usually about the adroit exercise of organizational power to accomplish a given end. It’s managers who lead. Managers are sent off to leadership training to enable them to better use their authority to direct those who work for them. In this view, leadership is something that happens down the hierarchy—leaders at the top, followers at the bottom. You are led by the person who is above you on the org. chart and you lead those whose boxes on the chart lie under yours with lines directly down from your box.
Leadership as a Work-Extraction Mechanism
One of those dreadful “motivational” posters tells us, “The speed of the leader sets the rate of the pack.” This kind of leadership is a work-extraction mecha- nism. Its purpose is to enhance not the quality of the experience but the quantity. The reason you are being led is to get you to work harder, stay lon- ger, and stop goofing off.
During the early part of the First World War, a young Russian journal- ist named Lev Davidovich Bronstein wrote home from the front with some observations about leadership. His letters might have been lost, but since he later became the revolutionary Trotsky, they are preserved. In one letter he observes that unless they are given side arms, the junior officers will be com- pletely unable to lead their men into battle. Using a gun to lead means you have to “lead” from behind. This is what work-extraction leadership is all about. The gun, in the workplace, is replaced with delegated authority and positional power.