Leadership is the ball: leadership is a collective process not an individual attribute


Didier Marlier

May 02, 2010

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Synchronicity may be seen as a pure coincidence, or an esoteric “was written in the stars” sort of blessed encounter or the fact that we create our own flourishing environment by continuously sharing, listening and being curious. Such a fortunate moment happened this Saturday when, on the one hand, I was proud to be invited in Macolin (Switzerland national elite sports’ center) to hold a three hours dialogue about leadership with some of the country’s sharpest sports coaches. On the other hand, on Tuesday, I was preparing in São-Paulo a session with Dalton Sardenberg (my partner in crime at Fundação Dom Cabral) and one of the institution’s three “living legend” directors, psychoanalyst Mozart Pereira. Reviewing the conclusions of the work done in common with 14 Brazilian CEOs, Mozart declared: “A frequent mistake about leadership is to see it as a sort of individual privilege attached to the job. This is wrong and corresponds to the old Maya/Aztec way of grasping leadership. In the “Open Economy”, leadership is a process!” The reflection went on and here are some of the key points which were made in both meetings about the process of leadership:

  • Leadership must flow freely between the members of a team, like the ball in football, basketball, handball or rugby, like the puck in ice hockey. In such sports, which player “holds leadership” during a given game??? The one who happens to drive the ball! If other players remain passive spectators, the temporary leader will rapidly loose the ball. His partners should create opportunities, in a supportive way for him to use his leadership (the ball) at best and in the interest of the whole team. The ball is the leadership.

  • Leadership can be measured as a process: for Mozart, the speed by which the dialogue (think of the ball or puck analogy) changes “owner” and the diversity and number of “players” taking a part in the game (the dialogue) are great indicators of the richness or dysfunctions of the leadership process.

It is way healthier for a leader to consider leadership as a shared process rather than a selfishly guarded attribute:

  • Leadership as a process engages people far more; they are encouraged to talk, share, explore, challenge and support
  • It is far less exhausting; the leader isn’t alone anymore to “carry the burden of leadership” which gets increasingly shared and co-owned by the whole team.

So why do so many leaders still relinquish to consider leadership as a process in which they should involve as many people as possible?

  • An interesting H.B.R. article[1] may provide an answer, egocentrism, sometimes narcissism get in the way and the leader simply can’t let go of leadership which has become part of his identity.
  • We also see wonderful leaders who have fulfilled their dream in building an outstanding business, incapable of letting go of their baby and hanging on the leadership as long as they can, sometimes even designating weak successors as a way to stay in charge behind the scene.
  • Other leaders fear that they may loose the respect their seniority and experience are due, by letting go of the leadership symbolic attributes. In this case it more a matter of “territory” than anything else.
  • Also too common is the fear to allow mistakes, forgetting very often the number of failures it took them to bring the business to the high level of success they placed it.
  • The lack of trust is another classic: Yes, autonomy and co-leadership have to be earned (through results). But such leaders frequently forget that it is their duty to enable and develop their team members to be able to succeed in co-running leadership and taking successful initiatives: Leaders have the followers they deserve! (and followers when they lack courage to challenge and collude with the autocratic boss also have the leader they deserve!)

The summary of all this is that such “die hard” lonely leaders have an anxiety about “loosing it” coming from a misconception between the fantastically powerful and developmental “Leadership as a process” and their responsibility of manager. Using the human body analogy, all the parts of the body are working together in a harmonious leadership process. However each organ is still fully responsible for their part of the business and one of the brain’s task is to coordinate the various signals it receives and decide which one will have the priority. Leadership as a process is not anarchy (absence of leadership) but polyarchy (leadership in the hands of all, united behind a shared Purpose). Lt. General Van Riper’s “in command but out of control” says nothing different.

How do “die hard leaders” more or less subtly proceed to keep leadership in their sole hands?

  • They cultivate distance and discourage intimacy. It is lonely at the top and they like it to stay like that: they can see come from a distance all the “would be leaders” seeking to steal their treasure…
  • As a way to discourage initiative and development of other leaders, they will punish mistakes, preferably through “public executions” as a way to warn other rebels that the old man is still in control.
  • They will not admit their own “temporary incompetence”, pretending to be always fine, excelling at finding great excuses why their own failures were in fact part of the plan, and through their punishing attitude, they will ensure that nobody else starts to admit their own doubts, questions or temporary incompetence.
  • They will clearly show that feedback, challenge and support are unwelcome by denying, refusing or permanently self justify.

It is time to stop leadership of being “a privilege and honor, enthusiastically sought by the ambitious, and jealously guarded by the articulate, charismatic, informed and intelligent few to be inflicted on the inarticulate, uncharismatic, misinformed and unintelligent many” as an ex-colleague of mine crafted it elegantly. Leadership is a process of development which directs our teams and enterprises on the way to becoming (more of) an intelligent organization.

Paris, Brighton/Hove and Amsterdam are on the menu this week. Have an enjoyable week too!

[1] M. Maccoby “Narcisistic Leaders: the incredible pros, the inevitable cons” (January 2004) Harvard Business Review


  1. Didier Marlier

    Thanks Duncan, I didn’t know this one… Although the clip seems a bit of a make-up for that purpose, the lessons however are very deep: Leadership is overglorified, it is the first follower who had the guts to join an otherwise lonely lunatic, that made the difference and created the momentum! Excellent, thank you for sharing this!!!



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