In a paper I wrote in the late-1990s, I drew attention to Wallace and Ridgeway’s point about the importance of "marginality" in the dynamics of organizational change and innovation. In Leadership for Strategic Change (1996), they argue:
"['Marginal men' (sic) have] . . . in an ambiguous environment . . . the capability to spot differences, to determine the patterns in unconnected data, and thus to perceive the factors that are relevant. ... They spot ideas that others do not and then they make public the ideas that others might not understand or appreciate…".
It seems to me that this remains an important characteristics of leadership in practice – whether exercised by those in formal management roles or others who are not. It recognizes the complex social (pattern-forming and pattern-shifting) dynamics of organization. And it veers away from the ‘if you do this, you’ll get that’ prescriptions that continue to dominate management orthodoxy - increasingly reinforced, it seems, by the apparent promise of ever more sophisticated analytical tools that will ‘cut through complexity’ to deliver the sought-after certainty, predictability, and control.
"The trick here is to become a "marginal man" without becoming a ‘nowhere man - sitting in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody’ (Lennon-McCartney)!"
This remains a challenge in a world in which leadership still tends to be viewed (and rewarded) as the elite practice of a few gifted and formally appointed individuals, rather than as an emergent property of the ongoing social process of everyday human interaction. As Obeng, in Putting Strategy to Work (1996), says:
"Being an invisible leader means recognizing that you will never get the credit for most of the work you do - in fact you cannot get any credit at all for your best work. It is beginning to see yourself as creator-enabler rather than as driver-conqueror."