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Leading When Leadership is Impossible

When leadership is impossible (or seems impossible), the truth is, you can make a difference.

Written by: Robert E. Quinn

As I engage with groups across the world, there is one question that I am continuously asked.  While the question takes many forms, the underlying issue is always the same and it is what constrains every individual and every organization. The issue is fear or hierarchical helplessness.  “In my organization, the senior person (or the culture) is… (fill in the blank with negative words), how could I ever practice the principles of positive leadership?”

When people ask this question they are speaking from experience. They “know” with certainty that it is impossible for them to become a purpose driven leader. For this reason I cherish accounts of purpose driven leaders in adverse, hierarchical situations. If such people are present, they challenge the logic of helplessness. The cases suggest that it must be possible to lead when leadership is impossible.

A friend wrote and indicated that he was moved by a recent blog describing a team leader who created social excellence despite the hierarchy above him. After some introductory remarks he shares his own account.

There is a difference between changing the organization above and building a high functioning team within the organization. Over the years, I learned that churn at the top was not manageable, but if my team had the priority of top-notch service and excellence I generally had the freedom to lead. 

          One price was to listen to every new director lecture me and pontificate on how things had to change. In each case, my team’s commitment to indiscriminating service excellence always resulted in appreciative support that was seldom voiced. Yet the unspoken appreciation allowed me to operate as a leader. Creating an excellent team gives you credibility that others do not have.    

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