Unleadership: The Remarkable Power of Unremarkable Acts

Unleaders go about their work quietly, attentive to the quality of their acts, rather than seeking attention for themselves. Often unnoticed, they improve our lives through spontaneous and seemingly ordinary acts, all the while challenging conventional leadership approaches. But how do they do it? It’s time to take a closer look!

In October 2022, a yacht with capacity for 15 people shipwrecked on the rocky coastline of the Greek island of Kythira. At the time, it was carrying some 95 Afghan refugees. Braving the dark and the wind, local construction company owner Michalis Protopsaltis rushed into one of his cranes to help. Together with around 100 other islanders, he winched 80 people to safety. But though the media hailed him as a hero, and he received a thank-you call from the Greek prime minister, Protopsaltis saw his act as unremarkable. “All this talk about heroism is overblown,” he suggested. “What we did was only human.” The humility, generosity and spirit of compassion captured in this quote is at the heart of unleadership.

“While many formal leaders across the world dithered, pirouetted and talked about leadership, acts of leadership emerged from everywhere and often unexpected places.”

Our inspiration for researching unleadership came 18 months earlier than this incident, during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. We observed that while many formal leaders across the world dithered, pirouetted and talked about leadership, acts of leadership emerged from everywhere and often unexpected places. Companies, communities and individuals picked up the mantle of leadership, taking responsibility, mobilising resources, inspiring action, modelling the way and setting the pace. They were defying conventional leadership norms by using their resources and resourcefulness to take timely, creative, informed action for the social good, without waiting to be asked or “empowered” by some higher authority.

The Four Dimensions of Unleadership

In times that are dark — dark in the sense of uncertain and unknowable — the stories of everyday, ordinary people taking action and making a difference offered a little ray of hope. Our initial research was based on collecting and analysing newspaper articles on these spontaneous acts. Using established methodologies of discourse analysis, we identified four dimensions that captured the unique “leaderliness” of these acts, which were redrawing the conventional understanding of how “effective” leadership should be performed.

1. Confident connecting and collaborating

Unleaders recognise the limits of their knowledge and resources. They connect and collaborate confidently with others to tap into the collective intelligence of the group when these limits are reached. While they may inspire others to act, they do not set out to generate followers, and demonstrate the courage to act before securing the commitment of others. However, they engage openly with responders and willingly pass on responsibility to achieve and go beyond their original purpose.

Take, for example, Fans Supporting Foodbanks (FSF). Its three founders – two Everton supporters and a lone Liverpool fan – set aside their antagonistic loyalties to rival Merseyside soccer teams to develop a nationwide network of fan-driven food banks. Their slogan is “#hunger doesn’t wear club colours,” and they organise ways for fans from rival soccer clubs to work alongside each other at matchday collection points to put their principles into practice. Recognising the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, they collaborated with local businesses and education providers, mobilising their networks and offering fundraising, logistics and distribution support to create a Liverpool-based hub to make and distribute PPE.

2. Catching the wave

Unleaders do not seek to control events. Rather, they are proactively responsive, acting in a timely, thoughtful fashion that allows them to catch the wave. By paying attention to their local circumstances – rather than seeking it for themselves – unleaders act on the insights and information available to them and demonstrate the courage to step into the unknown.

Fashion entrepreneur Cally Russell, for instance, set up Lost Stock in response to the dire situation of garment workers in Bangladesh when Covid-19 struck: “When leading brands and retailers cancelled clothing orders worth over $2bn with no payment, they left millions of garment workers facing potential starvation. We decided to act. […] We didn’t get everything right with Lost Stock, but we learnt a huge amount from the experience.”

3. Living with the unknown:

Unleaders accept uncertainty and ambiguity, allowing them to dwell in the unknown with no clear vision of their destination. While they almost always have a clear purpose underpinned by social intent, spontaneity replaces the “grand plan” in fulfilling this purpose, and their actions evolve in line with the response they receive.

Showcasing an ability to thrive in the unknown is Rebecca Lovelace, the founder of and self-described “Chief Dot Joiner” at Building People. In 2017, she was driven to do something about the skills shortage and lack of diversity in the UK construction industry. Though she had no business background, she was guided by a clear sense of purpose. Lovelace found that incomplete knowledge about where Building People would end up was not so much anxiety-inducing as enabling. “It has been this wonderfully naïve approach,” she reflected. “It is hugely ambitious, but I can’t focus on how we get there. I just focus on day by day by day, and it just seems to be growing.”

4. Paying it forward

Paying it forward describes how unleaders make proactive gestures they see as the best contributions they can make to society in the current circumstances. These are actions undertaken with humility, generosity and a spirit of compassion, without anticipated personal benefit.

The Rochester Roaming Reindeers in Oakland County, Michigan exemplify this ethos. They saw how the absence of social interaction during the Covid-19 pandemic was taking a toll on their community. So, they acted. They came up with the idea of making “cheer” (gift) boxes to leave on local doorsteps and porches, aiming to bring smiles to faces in the run-up to Christmas. In the spirit of unleadership, their identities remain hidden. We only found out about the project thanks to a local resident – a lucky recipient of one of their boxes!

Reimagining the Working World

We tested our research findings in 2021-2022 through a series of seven workshops with practitioners from private and public sector organisations, from large bureaucracies and small consultancies to professional organisations and community groups. Through conversations with workshop participants and our own networks, we identified seven unleaders who embraced the four dimensions of unleadership to varying degrees. We interviewed them between 2021-2023, which helped us to understand the practice of unleading across a variety of organisations.

Our workshops and interviews confirmed that it was not as though these things were not happening before. Rather, in the intense darkness of the pandemic, these typically unremarked upon rays of light and kindness shone more brightly. Our attention was drawn to the everyday, seemingly unremarkable leaderly practices that often pass unnoticed, unheard and underappreciated, yet form the invisible glue that can make our communities and organisations places we want to live and work.

“What unleadership does is disrupt our ideas of what might constitute leadership and ‘followership.’”

This is how we arrived at the term unleadership. It does not imply a lack or absence of leadership. Indeed, we found plenty of examples of unleadership from those in formal leadership positions. But what unleadership does is disrupt our ideas of what might constitute leadership and “followership.”

When we pay attention to these seemingly “unremarkable” actions and small acts of kindness, we offer a counterbalance to the narrative of “leader as hero.” Throughout our research, we met practitioners unwilling to express themselves using the traditional language of heroism. No matter how transformative and radical their approaches at work were, they did not associate themselves with narratives of transformational leaders who emerge through the eye of the storm, riding the tiger to arise “stronger and better.”

Our work gives voice to these people – those who do not receive enough attention in practitioner or academic circles because our gaze is riveted on political and corporate figures in powerful leadership roles who are believed to produce the future and solve the grand challenges through decisive action, once and for all.

Recognising that no one leadership style can offer the conceptual richness to account for the diversity of ways we live and lead, our research attempts to understand what is going on in the human world. Our hope is that the four dimensions of unleadership will provoke new conversations about the way we act and take up our roles in our workplaces, and to reimagine more human ways of working. After all, as Michalis Protopsaltis remarked, we are all only human.

[Title image by FilippoBacci/E+/Getty Images]

Selen Kars-Ünlüoğlu

As an Associate Professor in Organisation Studies in the Bristol Business School, Selen’s interest lies in understanding how entrepreneurs, leaders and organizations develop their capabilities for sustainable futures. In her research, she is committed to attend to the everyday lived experience viewed through the lens of practice. She also collaborates with organisations, of all scales across many sectors, developing leadership development programs and facilitating organisational development interventions, with a specific focus on instilling an innovation climate and engaging communities of practice.

Carol Jarvis

As a Professor in Knowledge Exchange and Innovation in the Bristol Business School, the focus of Carol’s research is in exploring the everyday experience of work and especially the leadership and organisational practices that encourage individuals and organisations to flourish in uncertainty and unpredictability. This is also a feature of her leadership development and consultancy work in many organisations, particularly in the health and care sectors. Carol’s work seeks to build and deliver sustainable improvements to workplace practices.

Hugo Gaggiotti

As a Professor of Work and Employment in the Bristol Business School, the focus of Hugo’s research lies on the intersections between organisational narratives, meaning of work and professional culture from an interdisciplinary organisational ethnographic approach. As a lead investigator in numerous British Academy-Newton Fund and British Council projects, he conducted his fieldwork in the industrial regions of Pindamonhangaba (Brazil), Baja California (Mexico), Ciudad Juarez (Mexico), and Almaty (Kazakhstan).

Pin It on Pinterest