2. The first paradox of leadership is – leadership!

Author : Morgen Witzel

The notion that ‘people want to be led’ is deep-seated in much of modern leadership practice, even if leadership theorists are prone to express doubts. In this chapter Morgen Witzel suggests that this may be a misconception – one, moreover, with serious consequences. While it is true that leaders require the consent of the led, it is too often assumed that this consent, once given, cannot or will not be revoked and that followers will support leaders because they genuinely desire that others should lead them. Witzel argues instead that people may accept the need for leadership, but that in most cases they accept leaders out of necessity rather than true desire. This chapter goes on to explore some ways of dealing with the paradox of need and want, and what the implications might be for leaders in business, politics and elsewhere.

  • There go my people!
  • Leaders: a necessary evil
  • Laissez-faire leadership
  • The social contract
  • A force for change
  • Living with the paradox
Questions for reflection and discussion  
  1. How do you feel about being led? Do you agree with Jefferson that submission to others is ‘the last degradation of a free and moral agent’, or do you think leadership is a positive force? Do you yourself actually like being led? Think about this, and write a short 50 or 100 word note summarising your thoughts. Then reflect on this.
  2. Having summarised your own view of leadership, how do you think the people whom you lead feel about being led? Do they really, genuinely, want you to lead them? Or do they accept your leadership as a perhaps unpleasant necessity? Or are their views somewhere between those positions? What does this mean for your own leadership style?
  3. ‘The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware.’ Could you lead like this? Could you trust the people you lead to do the right thing, without you there to guide them? If not, why not?
  4. ‘Each of us places his person and authority under the supreme direction of the general will, and the group receives each individual as an indivisible part of the whole.’ How might this work in practice? How might each party understand their role in the social contract, and how would leadership have to change to accommodate this concept?
  5. One implication from John Kotter’s work is that people might want to be led, but they do not want to be managed. But can you be a successful leader without also knowing how to manage? Consider this, and discuss with your colleagues.


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