October 7, 2005
Leadership editor Marshall Shelley reports from Catalyst, a conference for young leaders.
After two days at the 2005 Catalyst Conference in Atlanta, I've picked up the mixed feelings that the emerging generation has about leadership. Even though Catalyst is billed as a conference for "young leaders," the attendees I've talked to don't openly aspire to leadership, at least not "the strong, dominant leader" model.
No one openly and forthrightly says (as I heard young people say 20 years ago), "I want to be a leader." Or "I hope to be a person of great influence someday." Instead, the conferees at Catalyst carefully parse the meaning of the word leadership. The attendees see the importance of good leadership, and everyone appreciates being in a group that's well-led. But when picturing such a group, very few mentally picture an individual leader. The mental image of a group that's well led doesn't have a clear and established leader. In fact, a person who identifies himself or herself as a leader, too openly, is viewed with suspicion and maybe even scorn.
The attitude is reminiscent of "the tall poppy syndrome"
of certain cultures - if anyone rises too much above the level of everyone else, and is deemed to be calling attention to himself, he'll be chopped down.
So why are 8,500 people attending a leadership conference if no one wants to be seen as "the leader" of a group?
"I'm not interested in the position of leader, but the process of leadership," one young man told me. The assumption seems to be that no one is a leader; leadership these days demands more than one person. It's about being on a team. Leadership isn't about exercising individual influence or power, and certainly not control. It's about sharing the vision and the load. It's about team building, drawing out the strengths of everyone involved, and pointing attention anyplace but to yourself. It's an exercise in community.
Maybe this generation has heard those lines about "it's lonely at the top" and decided that leadership, like much of their social life, is something best done in groups.
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