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Back in the 80s people used to argue over whether they were managers or leaders. It seemed that management and leadership were alternatives or that one might start out as a manager and then become a leader. When you think about those old distinctions in today’s context the surprising conclusion is that, although it is nice when managers exhibit leadership, leadership can appear anywhere in an organisation (or outside it). It seems that, in an organic organisation, leadership is nothing less than a flow of energy between people in which all can participate.

The old distinction confuses leadership with power. Powerful people tend to manage rather than lead, because power gives them control. The flow of energy can, to some extent, be controlled by power. The downside of such an approach is that power, in Newtonian terms, can evoke an equal and opposite reaction. People can freely choose to contribute to a flow of energy but, under compulsion, may withdraw their contribution or even actively resist. Mainstream leadership development focuses on techniques by which power can manipulate people to serve its own ends.

A wholesome view of leadership is that everyone can, must and probably does make leadership contributions – indeed that the flow of energy we call leadership occurs most effectively when it engages everyone involved. The overall flow is guided or drawn forth by a shared sense of purpose. Individuals step into and out of the stream of leadership as and when appropriate, according to who can see most clearly, who has energy to act, who is strong, who has the right skills for the situation and so on. It depends upon mutual trust and respect that enable open relationships to flourish.

This is best experienced directly through work although for many people they need to play together to get the flavour of it. This is the purpose of off-site experiential retreats in which groups of all sizes can, in parallel, work and play together to co-create a leadership flow within their organisation.

I have seen this work with junior and senior teams and with whole departments, with partnerships and conglomerates. With imagination and commitment, processes can be devised that get breakthrough results using quite short intensive interactions, off-site and at work.

John Varney,  Centre for Management Creativity

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