There’s No Such Thing as Leadership? Pull, Influence and “Open Space” vs. Power

How many times has the question been asked, “What is management vs. what is leadership?”   This question, which is actually about power and influence, seems as if it may never die.  A web search on the difference between the two delivers 176 million results.

Photo by Anna Tarazevich on


A web search on “what is management vs. leadership” brings about 176,000,000 results.


After Dr. John Kotter, Harvard professor and author of several best-selling change methodology books, decided to ALSO post a 2013 short piece on that same perennial subject, I wanted to share here what Drucker actually said, from someone who knew him well.

I came across Drucker’s friend, Wes Balda last year.  Wes had written a compelling piece on our overwrought attention to defining leadership.  Wes directly cites Drucker as excerpted below.


At lunch one day, [Wes] asked Peter to define leadership. He snorted in response, “There is no such thing as leadership.”

He defended this by claiming it couldn’t be defined. He stressed that leaders were only labeled thus because they had followers.

At best, leadership may be a dimension of management,he said, “and leaders could be identified because their actions were predictable, or perhaps trustworthy.”


Leading could be how we manage, or make knowledge effective through relationships, in powerless environments.



photo credit:  Jeff McNeill

Wes commented, “When the greatest management thinker of the 20th century expresses his ambivalence about leadership, we should all pay attention.  …we are awash in leadership books.”

“…Max DePree identified an important concept – the absence of power.  Leading could be how we manage, or make knowledge effective through relationships, in powerless environments.”

“Results are achieved around or beyond the use of power.  ‘Leading without power’ may be the only way leadership works. By definition, then, using power in leading is not leading at all.”


“…using power in leading is not leading at all.”


Perhaps it is compliance, or coercion, or intimidation, especially in light of models that split up elements of leading and managing, like this one from another article, in Forbes.

Here, the model creator placed “power tools” at the base.   Notice the types of tools classified as “Leadership” tools, ones that “pull” in participation and inspire, such as storytelling, vision and conversation, as well as learning, which is listed as a management tool but does not enter the “power tools” and coercion circle.

Model via and it’s author, Stephen Denning, the former Program Director of Knowledge Management at the World Bank. He is also the author of A Leader’s Guide to Storytelling (Jossey-Bass, 2005).

…Volunteers do not contribute their time and energy because another is using power. The CEO of a nonprofit, does not order them to serve.  

Volunteers themselves may joke about this, like reminders to themselves of the freedom they have.   You might hear statements like:

  • If I don’t get this done, the “boss” will cut my (volunteer) pay.
  • I might get written up on my performance review if this event doesn’t go smoothly.
  • Someone might cut off my bonus pay if we don’t make good on our promises.

Excerpts from Wes’s article:

Most “leaders,” when they get into trouble, are found to have used power inappropriately and therefore become toxic.

So, when Drucker says leaders are only defined by the presence of followers, I believe he means that these followers first exist – and that they are absolutely free from all constraints in choosing to follow.

The decision to follow creates the ultimate democracy.  (Note, Drucker became even more focused on civil society after Sept. 11, 2001.)

Read the full article by Wes Balda here:
Admiral Thad Allen, Retired, Quote


Think of leaders in countries experiencing great unrest, including our own, and what distinguishes the greatly admired from the reviled.  They did not accomplish what they did by themselves.  Followers, or the lack of them in military coups, for example, made a difference.  It certainly has a lot to do with reputation and community or tribe that leaders amass around themselves:

  • Catherine the Great,  1729-1796, >> improved the lives of Russian serfs and helped elevate Russia as one one of the dominant countries in Europe
  • Abraham Lincoln, 1809 -1869, >>16th president and leader through the US Civil War of fought from 1861 to 1865
  • Saddam Hussein, 1937 – 2006, >> 5th president of Iraq, condemned widely for his brutal style of dictatorship
  • Nelson Mandela, 1918 (age 94), >>  anti-apartheid activist and President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, the first to be elected in a fully representative democratic election, avoiding bloodshed and civil war.  
  • Lady Gaga, 1986 (age 26), American singer & entertainer with over  26 million followers, “Little Monsters.” 

A well known and often shared video on being the first follower  helps illustrate this point.

Leadership, especially of change, is a constantly moving target, helped by systemic, holistic process, and not as much by a single person, set of competencies, degree, certifications, badges or a story lines (though a powerful story can help greatly.)  

Open Space Technology is one of several process tools that may be useful in developing agility in organizations that need a way to break out of management patterns that have outgrown their usefulness (video below.)  An Open Space handout is on the Tools page.  A photo set of Deb’s work with a global change conference, ACMP Success Secrets of Trusted Change Advisors is here.

Leadership may even have little to do with what’s right at any one time, although doing the right thing does matter.   Having mobility to manage across detail may be the skill set needed to emerge well out of chaos and confusion.

It may also be why leadership itself perhaps could be best set free from roles, forever.  Instead it may be best attached to leadership moments.  Too many of these moments can also be a good cause for caution, as in laying out too much exhibited power, not enough influence.  Needed partnerships with others is a delicate dance of helping others shine in their leadership moments, as well as knowing when it is your turn.


“In the past a leader was a boss. Today’s leaders must be partners with their people… They no longer can lead solely based on positional power.” ~ Ken Blanchard


Open Space group
Open Space group
Thanks for visiting!  As always, comments enrich the conversation.  ~  Deb

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Published by dnrevel

Change & transition, Leadership team & organization development. Executive Leadership team coach. My LinkedIn profile:

12 thoughts on “There’s No Such Thing as Leadership? Pull, Influence and “Open Space” vs. Power

  1. You have a great video clip about open space and it gives good visuals of the process!!! Open space is a great way to get people collaborating and sharing in a different ways. We have used this process several times in our organization. When people are allowed to go where they feel energy and not directed or told what to do, the outcomes are amazing.

    Thanks for sharing such good information!!


    1. Julia, I hope you’ve had some opportunities to experience Open Space since January when we talked. If you have, it would be great to know about the outcomes.

      My last experience with Open Space in a business setting is that it helped a sizable group of volunteers who were dissatisfied with a leader decision to let go of a majority of the simmering angst of that decision and move on to productive planning. Follow-up assessment showed that the group had successfully pivoted or shifted into a new, more productive mindset. Such is the stuff of letting go of traditional power!

      ~ Deb


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