Mobilizing People

October 15, 2013, 0 Comments

Leadership involves not just knowledge and understanding. Leadership is about movement, and specifically the movement of people. In looking into the literature, both the teaching of the principle in theory and the demonstration of the principle through historical accounts are frequent means of showing how leaders mobilize followers.

The era of the American Civil War is frequently written about, and has produced many books on leadership. Specifically, many authors have chronicled the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Donald T. Phillips’s book is a succinct and helpful observation of leadership principles from one of the country’s most beloved presidents. Phillips commented, “The shrewdness and subtlety with which Lincoln guided people has not generally been recognized. Often, his action seemed so innocent that contemporaries and subordinates had no inkling that Lincoln’s hand was involved in the circuitous changing of events.”[1]

Whereas, the effort to mobilize people could involve a strong hand, Lincoln often moved people to action through his oratorical skills and through strong relationships. The president was so confident in his ability to lead others that it bred a security which allowed him to listen better and trust others more. Therefore, when disputes broke out among his cabinet and members of Congress, Lincoln would arrange meetings with the offended parties and simply guide them toward resolutions. “But Lincoln’s chief objective was to allow his subordinates to say, ‘We accomplished this ourselves’.”[2] A portion of Lincoln’s legacy was that he taught other leaders how to move people to the actions they wish to take anyway. Leaders must learn the skill of mobilizing people without necessarily being heavy-handed.

The word “catalyst” is used to show how leaders move people toward action in organizations. In their popular book, The Starfish and the Spider, Brafman and Beckstrom compared the role of a CEO to that of a catalyst within an organization. The book advocates the development of leaderless organizations and, therefore, they write for the development of catalysts. In their view, the CEO is a person who is immensely concerned with the structure and systems of the organization, whereas the catalyst is mission-oriented and allows relationships to accomplish the work. The authors take a careful position to say that the catalyst style of leadership is not ideal in all circumstances. “Catalysts are bound to rock the boat. They are much better at being agents of change than guardians of tradition. Catalysts do well in situations that call for radical change and creative thinking. They bring innovation, but they’re also likely to create a certain amount of chaos and ambiguity.”[3]

In both instances of Lincoln’s leadership and in the leaderless organization, the common theme is to move people to action. Interestingly, as president of the United States, Lincoln seems to have searched for the skills that are described as the catalyst rather than that of the CEO. However, the point maintained is that leaders lead people into some sort of action. Looking to Wiseman’s research-driven book, a contrast is made between effective and ineffective mobilizers in leadership.

In Liz Wiseman’s book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, the character of the Know-It-All is presented as a leader who can make projects come to fruition, but ultimately they remove the motivation from the members of the organization for future work, because they are not personally valued. Know-It-All leaders ensure that the organization and work revolves around themselves rather than embracing a greater mission and the maturation of their followers. Conversely, Wiseman describes effective leadership through the role of a Challenger. In this style of leadership, she described the Challenger as: “…using their smarts to find the right opportunities for their organizations and challenge and stretch their organizations to get there. They aren’t limited by what they themselves know. They push their teams beyond their own knowledge and that of the organization. As a result, they create organizations that deeply understand a challenge and have the focus and energy to confront it.”[4]

The mind of the multiplying leader is to not just accomplish tasks, but rather to build up the members of the organization so that greater tasks can be accomplished in the future. Again, both styles of leadership can move people, but only one will effectively continue to move them for future projects.


[1] Donald T. Phillips, Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times (New York, N.Y.: Warner, 1992), 100.

[2] Ibid., 106.

[3] Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations (New York, N.Y.: Portfolio Trade, 2006), 131.

[4] Liz Wiseman, Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter (New York, N.Y.: HarperBusiness, 2010), 102–03.

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