Tuesday, June 25, 2024
“What’s been missing is a definition of a leader that covers all these descriptions. And that is, A leader is someone people follow.”

In The Leaders We Need and What Makes Us Follow, Michael Maccoby and Tim Scudder present a compelling analysis into the dynamics of leadership and followership in contemporary society, arguing that effective leadership is not just about personal qualities, but also about understanding the needs and motivations of followers.

The book draws on Maccoby's extensive experience in psychoanalysis, anthropology, and leadership consulting, combining theoretical insights with practical applications.

As part of my “The Art of Leadership” series, this contribution will delve into the key insights presented in the book, covering the changing nature of leadership, the psychological dimensions of leaders and followers, and the socio-cultural context influencing leadership dynamics.

Some years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael on The Business of Government Hour exploring the intersection of leadership and strategic intelligence. If this latest essay piques your interest in his work (as it is intended to do), then I invite you to check out my earlier conversation with Michael as well as a magazine profile I did on his concept of strategic intelligence. It will complement what is offered here.

On the Evolution of Leadership

One of the central themes of the book is the evolution of leadership paradigms over time. He points out that leaders have been described throughout history in every way imaginable – as dictators, demagogues, commanders, bosses, benefactors, guardians, coaches, and trailblazers.

Maccoby acknowledges that something is missing:

“What’s been missing is a definition of a leader that covers all these descriptions. And that is, A leader is someone people follow.”

He recognizes that we can expand on this definition to state that people follow leaders within a particular context,

“since being a leader isn’t a personal trait, like introversion. Rather, it’s a relationship in a context that exists only as long as people follow the leader.”

In this work, Maccoby traces the shift from traditional, authoritative forms of leadership to more collaborative and empathetic models. Historically, leaders were often seen as heroic figures, embodying strength and decisiveness. This "heroic" leadership model was suitable for stable environments where top-down directives ensured efficiency and order.

However, Maccoby argues that the contemporary world, characterized by rapid technological advancements and globalization, requires a different type of leadership. The modern leader must be adaptable, emotionally aware, strategically intelligent, and capable of fostering innovation. This shift reflects a broader change in organizational structures, moving from hierarchical models to more networked and flexible forms. The emphasis is now on leaders who can inspire and mobilize diverse teams, rather than simply command and control.

Insight #1: Leadership is not static; it evolves with societal and technological changes.

Practical Implications

  • Adaptive Leadership: Leaders must develop the ability to pivot and adjust strategies in response to evolving circumstances. This involves staying attuned to external changes and being open to innovative solutions.
  • Lifelong Learning: Continuous education and personal development are crucial. Leaders should strive to stay updated with the latest trends and advancements in their fields, ensuring they are equipped to handle emerging challenges.

On the Psychological Dimensions of Leadership

Maccoby's background in psychoanalysis provides a unique lens through which to examine leadership. He delves into the psychological makeup of effective leaders, identifying key traits and behaviors that distinguish them. Central to this discussion is the concept of "productive narcissism." Unlike the negative connotations typically associated with narcissism, Maccoby argues that a certain level of narcissism is essential for leadership.

Productive narcissists are visionaries; they possess a strong sense of self-belief and are driven by a desire to leave a lasting impact.

However, this must be balanced with empathy and self-awareness to avoid the pitfalls of unproductive narcissism, which can lead to leaders that lack focus and regard for others.

A significant portion of Maccoby and Scudder's analysis is devoted to understanding how personality also shapes leadership. They categorize leaders into various archetypes, such as the "strategist," "innovator," "hero," and "caretaker," each embodying distinct personality traits and leadership styles.

For instance, the "strategist" is often analytical and forward-thinking, while the "innovator" thrives on creativity and risk-taking.

Understanding these archetypes can help leaders harness their inherent strengths while also being aware of potential pitfalls associated with their dominant traits.

Insight #2: The personality of leaders significantly influences their style and effectiveness.

Practical Implications

  • Self-Reflection and Assessment: Leaders can benefit from introspective practices and personality assessments to gain insights into their own leadership style and areas for growth.
  • Balanced Leadership: While leveraging their core strengths, leaders should strive to develop complementary skills that can round out their leadership approach, making them more versatile and effective.

On Interplay of Leader and Follower

Maccoby emphasizes that leadership cannot be fully understood without considering the role of followers. This relationship is symbiotic; effective leaders understand their followers' needs, values, and motivations. Similarly, followers often choose leaders who reflect their own aspirations and ideals. This dynamic interplay is foundational to understanding how leadership operates in practice.

The book introduces the idea of "interactive followership," emphasizing that followers are not passive recipients of leaders' directives but active participants in the leadership process.

Effective followership involves critical thinking, engagement, and a willingness to challenge leaders constructively. This interactive dynamic fosters a more democratic and responsive leadership environment.

Insight #3: Leadership is a dynamic relationship between leaders and followers, not just a set of traits or behaviors.

Practical Application

  • Engagement and Dialogue: Leaders should actively engage with their followers, fostering open communication and mutual understanding.
  • Empathy: Developing empathy to genuinely understand and resonate with followers' concerns and aspirations.

On the Importance of Purpose

Maccoby highlights the significance of having a clear and compelling purpose. Leaders who articulate a strong vision and mission can inspire greater commitment and engagement from their followers. Purpose acts as a guiding star, aligning the efforts of the organization and fostering a sense of shared direction and meaning. Maccoby and Scudder argue that in the absence of a clear purpose, leaders may struggle to galvanize their teams and achieve sustained success.

Insight #4: Purpose-driven leadership is crucial for long-term success and follower commitment.

Practical Implications

  • Articulating a Vision: Leaders should craft and communicate a clear, compelling vision that resonates with the values and goals of their followers. This vision serves as a roadmap, guiding the collective efforts of the organization.
  • Purpose Alignment: It is essential to ensure that the organization’s actions and strategies are consistently aligned with its stated purpose, fostering coherence and integrity in its operations.

On the Importance of Authenticity

In an era where followers are increasingly discerning and skeptical, authenticity in leadership has become a critical asset. Maccoby and Scudder argue that authentic leaders, who are transparent, consistent, and true to their values, are more likely to earn the trust and loyalty of their followers.

Authenticity involves aligning one’s values, words, and actions, and leading in a manner that is genuine and true to oneself. Authentic leaders do not merely adopt a leadership persona; they embody their leadership style in a way that reflects their core beliefs and principles.

Insight #5: Authenticity in leadership fosters trust and credibility.

Practical Implications

  • Transparency: Leaders should be open about their intentions and the rationale behind their decisions. This transparency fosters trust and encourages a culture of honesty and openness within the organization.
  • Integrity and Consistency: Upholding ethical standards and maintaining consistency in actions and decisions reinforces a leader’s credibility and fosters a sense of stability and trust among followers.

On Navigating Technological Change

Maccoby and Scudder explore how digital transformation and technological innovation are altering traditional leadership paradigms. Leaders today must navigate a world where information is readily accessible, and organizational structures are becoming more decentralized. The rise of digital transformation and technological innovation requires leaders to adapt to new ways of operating and leading. It requires a new set of skills, including digital literacy, flexibility, and the ability to lead virtual teams.

Insight #6: Technological advancements are reshaping the landscape of leadership and followership.

Practical Implications

  • Embracing Technology: Leaders should actively seek to understand and integrate new technologies into their organizational processes. Staying ahead of technological trends can provide a competitive edge and enhance operational efficiency.
  • Virtual Leadership Skills: Developing competencies in leading remote and diverse teams through digital platforms is crucial in today’s globalized and digitally connected world.

On Collaborative Leadership

In addressing complex, global challenges, Maccoby and Scudder stress the importance of fostering a collaborative leadership environment. They argue that contemporary leaders must build coalitions, encourage teamwork, and promote cross-functional collaboration.

In a world marked by interconnected problems and opportunities, the ability to collaborate effectively is essential. Leaders who can cultivate a culture of collaboration and inclusivity are better positioned to leverage the collective intelligence and creativity of their teams.

Insight #7: Collaborative leadership is essential in addressing complex, global challenges.

Practical Implications

  • Building Networks and Partnerships: Leaders should actively build and nurture networks and partnerships both within and outside their organizations. These connections can provide valuable resources, insights, and support in tackling complex challenges.
  • Fostering a Collaborative Culture: Creating organizational structures and cultures that promote open communication, mutual respect, and shared problem-solving can enhance overall effectiveness and innovation.

On the Cultural Context of Leadership

Leadership does not occur in a vacuum; it is deeply embedded in the socio-cultural context. Maccoby examines how cultural, economic, and technological changes influence leadership styles and effectiveness. For example, the rise of the knowledge economy has shifted the focus from physical labor to intellectual capital. Leaders in this context must prioritize continuous learning, creativity, and the ability to manage knowledge workers who often value autonomy and purpose over monetary rewards.

Maccoby and Scudder underscore the significance of cultural context in shaping leadership practices and follower expectations. They argue that effective leadership cannot be understood in isolation from its cultural milieu. Different cultures have varied expectations and norms around leadership and followership. In an increasingly globalized world, leaders must navigate and bridge cultural differences to build cohesive and inclusive teams. Effective leaders must be culturally aware and sensitive, tailoring their approaches to fit the cultural dynamics of their followers and organizations.

Insight #8: Cultural context shapes leadership practices and follower expectations.

Practical Application

  • Cultural Awareness: Leaders should educate themselves about the cultural backgrounds and expectations of their followers and stakeholders. This awareness helps in navigating cultural nuances and avoiding misunderstandings.
  • Adapting Leadership Styles: Being flexible and willing to adjust leadership styles to respect and integrate diverse cultural perspectives can strengthen relationships and improve organizational cohesion.

On the Future of Leadership

Finally, Maccoby and Scudder emphasize that leaders must be proactive in anticipating and preparing for emerging trends and disruptions.

Leaders who can anticipate and prepare for emerging trends and disruptions are better equipped to navigate uncertainty and drive sustainable success.

This involves a combination of strategic foresight, innovation, and resilience. Maccoby and Scudder advocate for a proactive approach to leadership, where leaders continuously seek to innovate and adapt in response to changing conditions.

Insight #9: Leaders must be forward-thinking, preparing for future challenges and opportunities.

Practical Application

  • Strategic Foresight: Investing time and resources in understanding potential future trends and scenarios can help leaders make informed decisions and stay ahead of the curve.
  • Fostering Innovation: Encouraging a culture of creativity and innovation within the organization can drive continuous improvement and position the organization for long-term success.

Practical Implications and Case Studies

To illustrate his theories, Maccoby and Scudder provide numerous case studies and practical examples. These real-world scenarios demonstrate how successful leaders navigate complex environments and the strategies they employ to engage and inspire their followers. For instance, he highlights leaders in the tech industry who have revolutionized their fields through visionary thinking and a deep understanding of human psychology.

Moreover, the book offers practical advice for aspiring leaders. Maccoby outlines specific skills and behaviors that can be developed to enhance leadership effectiveness.

These include active listening, emotional regulation, strategic thinking, and the ability to foster a shared vision. He also emphasizes the importance of self-reflection and personal growth, encouraging leaders to continuously assess and improve their leadership style.


The Leaders We Need and What Makes Us Follow offers a compelling exploration of the multifaceted nature of leadership. By examining the evolving demands on leaders, the dynamics of leader-follower relationships, and the impact of personality, culture, and technology, the authors provide invaluable insights for navigating the complexities of leadership in the modern era.

Embracing these insights can help leaders inspire, engage, and effectively guide their followers through the challenges and opportunities of our ever-changing world.

As leadership continues to evolve, the principles articulated by Maccoby and Scudder will remain highly relevant in shaping the leaders we need today and in the future.