One of the books I’ve read recently for my 52 in 52 book challenge is Contagious:Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger. This post is based on one of the lines from the book that resonated with me the most. (My apologies to Mark Morrison for the blatant use of his catchy song).
“Status is inherently relational. Being leader of the pack requires a pack.”
I was initially drawn to this quote by the words that struck a chord. Intimately connected and heavily burdened with meaning, ‘status’ and ‘relationships’ are found in many forms in leadership conversations. I would argue, in fact, that they represent the two key tenants of leadership – who we think we are and who agrees.
Status carries a lot of weight for leaders. Titles and positions help us get things done. Status is a symbol of power and potential, putting the leader on a pedestal built on accomplishments and awards. Leadership becomes a lofty height to reach.
To be ‘in’ a role, we must define who is not. To be seen as a leader with status, we must create a space for those who have none. Status is inherently relational in how we compare ourselves to others. If one is a leader, someone else must not be. We must compare down and out – without a pack to follow us, we cannot lead.
It fascinates and frustrates me that leadership must be seen as the creation of an out group to justify an elite in group. By labelling individuals as a ‘pack’, identity is demoted to conformity and leadership becomes the task of herding an amorphous group in a single, fixed direction. While not the original intent of Berger’s writing, I am struck by how relationships can be distilled to a base, almost inhuman form when leadership is equated with status. The pedestal the leader stands on is built and supported, it seems, by the pack, carving stone and lifting boulders into place.
The pack must not be confused with a mob. While there is some merit to the view that a collective consciousness can grow and feats impossible for one can be achieved by the many, the pack can also hold up the leader on their pedestal, constructing status where none was before – and, at times, where none was ever wanted. Here again we see the great power in the pack and its relationship with the leader. A single person may lead the way, but the pack provides the power and prominence the leader needs to chart the course.
Chester Barnard’s fiction of superior authority says this in a much more intelligent way, noting that a leader can only lead if the group (or pack in this case) makes the conscious, willing choice to give up and give over their own power to lead. It is truly the pack, then, that carries the weight in the leading relationship. There is indeed strength in numbers – the leaders that are made, not born, are made by committee.