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To Lead Or Not To Lead? That Is The Question

Theories of leadership and the difficult question of when to lead or not lead in order to achieve the best outcome, was the subject of Professor Brigid Carroll’s inaugural lecture at the University of Auckland Business School, marking her appointment as the latest Fletcher Building Employee Education Fund Chair in Leadership.

Established in 2004 through a $2 million gift from the Trustees of the Fletcher Building Employee Educational Fund, the main role of the leadership Chair is to contribute significantly to the development of teaching and research in leadership and organisational behaviour.

Professor Carroll, from the Department of management and International Business at the University of Auckland, is the third appointment to the role, starting with the foundational chair Professor Brad Jackson, who is currently the Associate Dean of Strategic Engagement at Waikato University, and followed by Professor Kevin Low from the University of Sydney.

“We live in a world that tends to give immense profile to leaders, while simultaneously lamenting their quality,” says Professor Carroll. Reflecting on her research she says people often struggle with the demands of being ‘a’ leader as opposed to being part of a larger leadership story.

“Our understanding of the relationship between leaders and leadership, together with research and development into shared and collaborative leadership styles, ultimately plays with the idea that the choice 'not to lead' (or more accurately, 'be a leader' in any one moment) might open up new possibilities for how people, organisations and communities connect and collaborate to solve challenges and generate possibilities in an increasingly complex and uncertain world,” she says.

Professor Carroll then played with the idea of ‘not leading’ as about creating the space for others to lead, stepping back while signalling others need to step in, and leading ‘with’ as opposed to ‘for’ others. She argued ultimately that moments of ‘not being a leader’ might well be moments where leadership can be better distributed or shared with others.

She called for more awareness of the judgement call required to be an individual leader as opposed to the judgment call to be supporting leadership by others.

“Ironically we might be in a world of too many leaders and not enough leadership. Research has already started to explore ‘anti-leadering’ and ‘leaderlessness’ as proactive strategies to create more leader-ship. Therefore we need to move beyond feeling like a leader all or even most of the time. There is a far larger repertoire possible.”

“You might be a collaborative, collective leader. There is teamwork, co-leadership, and distributed leadership. There are times when ‘not leading’ is the right thing to do. The actions might best be decided by someone else in your team with you actively following in support. But whether we choose to lead or not lead, we must be intentional about those moments,” says Professor Carroll.


  • Professor Brigid Carroll teaches leadership, organisational theory and qualitative research methods at undergraduate, postgraduate and executive level and does extensive cross-sector leadership development work with corporate, community, professional, and youth organisations.

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