Pioneering versus Leadership

Recently I’ve had several conversations with friends and colleagues touching on the differences between being a pioneer and being a leader. There have always been support structures for aspiring leaders in many different fields and sectors, but there seems to be very little support for pioneers. Is it because, often being disruptive and maverick, they make other people uneasy? Or perhaps because what they do does not always bring a direct return on investment for sponsors and funders?

One analogy I have been thinking of is that of a ship. Ships require different specialists to fulfill diverse tasks: from engineering, victualling, cooking, communications, maintenance to management. Among these, it is the navigator or pilot’s task to navigate the ship, whilst the captain’s role is to direct the whole crew and be responsible for the ship and its integrity. The navigator must plot a safe course for the ship, earning the trust of the crew and captain that their experience, skill and nous will carry them all safely. I imagine that navigators have to combine heterogeneous skill sets and knowledges – such as weather/meteorology, geography/hydrography, tidal patterns, the mathematics of bodies/mass and movement among other things – to achieve the right synthesis of conditions for their task. I think this is very much like the kind of trans- or interdisciplinary approach that helps foster invention and innovation. Its not for everyone but can be extremely rich and rewarding for those who do participate.

I believe that pioneers are also just the kind of people with the skills to navigate uncharted territories. They survey and map out new territories that are often then colonised – farmed, made productive perhaps – by others who follow in their wake; by which time the pioneers have most likely moved on to new spaces. Leaders could be described as those who stay and organise the territory and the activities that take place within it. It’s this qualitative difference that separates pioneering from leading: leaders work within established frameworks whilst pioneers explore the potential for entirely new structures and frames that don’t yet exist.

What then is the value to society of people who pioneer? How can societies value and appreciate the kind of deferred return on investment that pioneers bring? Is it possible, or even desirable, to nurture pioneers with programmes like those that support those aspiring to leadership roles? Or perhaps, is it too much to ask society to feed the restless nature of those questing souls for whom any structure, in the medium to long term, is probably going to feel irksome?

The question is not an idle one: looking back over my own work of the past two decades there has been a strong element of pioneering in both projects and processes. Some of the projects and concepts I have developed have anticipated mainstream activities, but too far in advance to really reap any benefit from our prescience that could be reinvested in new work. How does one explain, or even demonstrate, the value of this deferred return to funders, sponsors or investors who are increasingly demanding direct returns on investment for the same kind of pioneering work?

There remains a contradiction or tension between wanting to be recognised and rewarded for being so ahead of the field alongside the frustration that people simply don’t understand where you’re trying to taking them. I suspect it comes down to temperament and character, an inexorable drive that just can’t be laid aside.