It’s pretty common these days to hear complaints about lack of leadership, poor leadership, and disappointment with those who are in leadership roles. In a recent World Economic Forum survey, 86% of the respondents reported they believe there is a leadership crisis in the world today.
But with all this talk about leadership, are we talking about the same thing? We make a lot of assumptions about what leadership means. Without a common definition of leadership, we are in danger of talking at cross-purposes with each other during the pressing conversations we need to have.
What is your definition of leadership?
You can find descriptions of many types of leadership – servant leadership, visionary leadership, situational leadership, transformational leadership, charismatic leadership, authentic leadership, self leadership. But strip away the adjectives, and it’s not easy to find a clear definition of simply leadership.
Most dictionaries say “leadership is the act of leading.” The common definition of lead is: Show the way to a destination by going in front; be in charge of or command. (Merriam-Webster, Oxford, et.al.) But these definitions are rooted in the assumption that leadership is based on authority and hierarchy, and not everyone holds this view.
Common synonyms for leadership include: guide, usher, escort, steer, shepherd, precede, cause, persuade, influence, command, govern, rule, control, direct. These words have vastly different meanings!
The academic definitions don’t help much either. Management textbooks define leadership as: The process of influencing others to support accomplishing a common goal (Northouse, Ivancevich, et.al, Jones, et.al.). But that leaves us with some important unanswered questions.
What’s the relationship between leader and leadership?
If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, is there a sound? If you attempt to lead and no one follows, are you really a leader?
You can lead the way by going where no one has gone before. But if no one follows, are you leading… or simply exploring?
The dictionary says “leadership is the act of leading”. But is leadership really an “act” or does it occur as result of followers responding?
James II of England succeeded his brother Charles II to the throne. Initially there was strong support for his accession. However, his pro-Catholic edicts in a strongly Protestant country were consistently resisted and within three years he was deposed. King James had the title of “leader” and history considers him a leader; but his followers did not follow, and he never provided leadership.
Is leadership simply a matter of influencing followers?
A recent Towers Watson study found 75% of all change initiatives were unsuccessful because leaders failed to get full support for the change from those who were needed to implement it. The leaders might have influenced their followers to accept the change and not actively resist it, but their leadership efforts failed because they did not mobilize people to actively support the initiative.
Leadership involves not simply influence, but specifically influence that unites followers around common goals and focuses their effort on achieving them.
How is this different from a definition of management?
Isn’t this what management is about? – influencing people to do a good job in accomplishing the goals? How is leadership different?
The clue is in the origin of the word lead. It is derived from Old English lǣdan and Proto-Germanic laidijaną which mean “to go.”
If your leadership efforts are focused only on task-accomplishment and not on where you’re going, there is nowhere for people to follow. So we can add that leadership about going somewhere, not just about accomplishing a common goal.
Leadership involves influencing the direction people are going, And since leadership efforts unite and mobilize followers, we could expand that to say: leadership involves influencing people to go somewhere together.
Here’s my definition of leadership:
Pulling the pieces together, I have arrived at this definition:
Leadership is a phenomenon that occurs when one influences the direction people are going and unites them toward accomplishing a common goal.
Instead of thinking of leadership as a role or as an action, with this definition we see leadership as a phenomenon that emerges.
This definition takes leadership out of the realm of power and control as it implies leadership is the result of a social contract, not simple cause and effect. Leadership is not reserved for the elite. Each moment holds a leadership opportunity. It shows that leaders whose intentions are divisive instead of to unite will not be successful in providing leadership. And it sets the stage to understand leadership from a perspective that:
- Clearly separates the phenomenon of leadership from the role of leader.
- Encourages people with good ideas to speak up and engage – to provide leadership.
- Encourages the official leaders and others to recognize and value emergent leadership when it occurs.
- Helps us in considering alternative organizational structures, rather than holding onto structures that support outdated, control-oriented models.
- Helps guide us, when selecting leaders, to choose leaders who will be successful in providing leadership.
What are your thoughts?
These are my thoughts…
I would love your hear yours! Do you have your own definition of leadership? a suggestion to tweak mine? some answers to my questions? or some additional questions of your own?
Interesting Jesse. I’ve gone to the dictionary as well – to help to clarify what leadership is and is not. Yep – clear as mud. I’ve leaned on Maxwell’s definition that leadership is influence. And at the same time felt like that’s not clear enough either.
I especially like your use of phenomenon and influence that impacts the direction…
Thank you for sharing!
I too have appreciated Maxwell’s simplicity, but leadership and influence are not exactly the same. Glad to know it makes sense to you to view leadership as a phenomenon that emerges instead of as an action. Much thanks for your thoughts and feedback!
I think your definition
“leadership involves influencing people to go somewhere together” is brilliant- both descriptive and aspirational. I will enjoy quoting you
You’ve covered the multiplicity of leadership quite well. I especially appreciate the idea of leadership being influence and I’m thinking sustainable influence is one way of adding a bit more to your definition. Influence over the long haul, through good and bad and through conflict and contentment. The influence that lasts is leadership. That’s what I’m thinking.
There’s a wonderful question here, Jane. What is the relationship between leadership and time? I agree that to really make a difference, results must be sustained. But I wonder whether leadership itself is sustained or whether it can exist for just one instant. It’s possible that one action can make a difference that lasts a lifetime. So is it about sustainable results or sustainable influence? Need to chew on this a bit more. Much thanks for raising such a great issue!
I like a leader works to unite people about where they are going together and how they are going to get everybody there. Now I am wondering how to apply this to my own life. Thanks.
I think the key would be to consider it from the perspective of response to what is needed instead of causality. For example, the question one might ask oneself would be “what is required in this moment?” instead of “how do I get people to…?”
Best definition for leadership I’ve ever heard. Thanks Jesse, that has become my new definion of leadership.
Thanks so much for your feedback, Bill! I’m truly in the midst of sorting this, and it helps to know I’m on the right track.
I just started towards a direction in the organization I lead, and your definition is going to make it easy to give genuine heartfelt leadership. Thanks Jesse
So glad to hear that. Thank you!
Enjoyed reading. Leadership is also about relationship.. be it professional or personal, In a corporate setting and at home,with your spouse, children neighbors, the community you live in.
It’s having the foresight to anticipate what’s around the bend that others have not yet figured out and lead them away from danger. A long term vision of where the company needs to be. The ability to articulate this vision and get buy in from others to follow.
Thanks, Farhad. This is nice expansion on the concepts in my definition of leadership – If, as I proposed, the relationship between leader and followers is based on a “social contract,” then the leader must be truly connected and really in relationship with others. And if leadership is about going somewhere, then foresight is required, and, if creating unity around accomplishing something is part of the definition, then as you point out, the ability to communicate a vision that mobilizes people to unite around it is paramount.
Yes, you are definitely on the right track. One reason the definition of leadership is many faceted is because needs of people also have many dimensions – different skills are required of a leader at different times in history whether of an organization or of a country. Ghandi was the right person at the right time in the right place. Similarly with Nelson Mandela even in the face of 27 years in prison. Leaders emerge, evolve, grow and change as do the organizations and other entities that they lead.
My take on leadership is that it is not so much the who, or even the how but rather the why and when. Understanding what is needed at the moment and crafting a common vision for the future are a good beginning. Nan Keohane who expressed herself well in “Thinking About Leadership” used to say that a leader has to know how (and when) to do three things: 1) solve problems, 2) make things happen and 3) take a stand.
I say you can get a lot of mileage as a leader if you can not only solve problems but anticipate them and do some preventive maintenance. And finally, my experience suggests that so much about leadership is about relationships, characterized by integrity, superb communication skills and being present.
Many great points, Gary. I especially appreciate your raising the issue of timing – right person, right time, right place. It adds credence to the idea of leadership as something that emerges. Thanks for the food for thought!
Thanks Jesse. Two thoughts come to mind. The classic distinction that management is about climbing a ladder to a destination while leadership is making sure the ladder is leaning against the “right” wall. The second I think is more important.
Picking up on your definition “Leadership is a phenomenon that occurs when one influences the direction people are going and unites them toward accomplishing a common goal” Lao Tzu would add that to a leader getting credit does not matter…it’s fine if the folks who achieved the common goal think they did it all by themselves. To state that differently – no ego, just the thought that something needs to be done. What do you think of the term “The Nudging Leader!?”
Agree with your points, and am wondering where they should be included – in the definition of leadership? in an adjective describing a type of leadership (e.g. servant leadership)? or in the definition of “leader?” Good thoughts to chew on. Thanks for adding your insights, Stewart!
“Leadership is a phenomenon that occurs when WITHOUT OTHERS NEED TO KNOW one influences the direction people are going and unites them toward accomplishing a common goal”
I see where you’re going… You might enjoy this post, Stewart. Reinforces your point: The Empty Carriage
Awesome post Jesse.
Leadership is built step by step with a deep relationship of trust between the leader and his followers. I think, the characteristic of a phenomenon is to be ephemeral. This is something perishable which can be quickly forgot. This often happens between a famous musician and his fans. However, leadership is based on a logical sequence of actions, messages, behaviors, stubbornly built from a clear vision and realistic goals, imbued with a profound wisdom to achieve something great. Just like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, actions of a leader, his thought and philosophy resist time and space by inspiring his contemporaries and future generations.
I appreciate your raising the question of the temporal nature of leadership. A similar issue to that raised by Jane Anderson. How we answer that question would impact our definition of leadership.
This is interesting as I have worked for and been a leader one of the key factors is the cultural & narrative influences at that moment in time yes we can influence people to change, however, it is entirely up to that person dependent on their current circumstances, the conversations are crucial.
Great points, Bill.. You started me wondering about the relationship between leadership and change – is leadership only about change or can it can also be about support for not-changing?
A great definition. The aspect that I find crucial is that real leaders value emergent leadership and encourage it. In my opinion, leaders are always looking for talent in their followers; they encourage discussion and dissension on the way to creating a goal that is shared by many. The art of inspiring followers is a pretty complex set of leadership actions.
Thanks, Betsy. You remind me that our perceptions and, therefore definitions, are affected by the values and context of our times.
It’s interesting your definition of leadership congers up thoughts of leaders like Nelson Mandela, JFK, Martin Luther King, and Jack Welch. Sometimes, though, we forget about the myriad of entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs (Apple), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Charles Ranlett Flint (IBM) or sport figures like Bill Walsh, Bill Belichick, Tom Landry, Connie Mack, and Vince Lombardi. We have a penchant of looking up to leaders as doing good for society as a whole. But what about the leaders we would rather forget like Genghis Khan, Hitler, or Jim Jones? They too were leaders that influenced follower’s direction toward a common goal, albeit abhorrent to normal society. But for the timing, would any of these leaders have been successful? Your “a phenomenon that emerges” is so apropos because I believe leaders emerge based on the needs at a particular time in history. Had those needs not existed who knows what the above leaders would have turned into.
Hitler, Jim Jones, Charles Manson… yes, they were leaders. We need a definition of leadership that holds all types of leaders, not just those whose efforts are beneficial. For leaders whose efforts are beneficial, we can attribute adjectives like transformational leadership, visionary leadership, servant leadership, etc. But the word leadership itself needs to be all-encompassing in order to have a common language/ basis for a conversation about leadership characteristics and qualities that we want to aspire toward.
Thanks so much for bringing up this important point, Woody!
Another inspirational gem filled with an abundance of wisdom. Thanks for shining a long overdue light on the critical link between leadership influence and clarity.
I really appreciate your feedback, David.
I like where you are going with this (because I am on the same path:-))
In my work with our teams I have spoken about the need ot be clear about what we mean when we say leadership. I believe Dr. Barbara Kellerman, of Harvard, has said there are over 40 different theories of leadership and 1200 definitions of leaders and leadership.
In my work with Dr. Russ Volckmann of Saybrook University I left with a definition that I use by going back to the root words for “leader” and “ship”
Leadership to me is “the state and condition of one who guides other along a journey”
Thanks for your thoughts, Khwezi! Agree there are too many definitions of leadership. Most of them are biased toward a belief of what makes good leadership. Some questions to consider – is leadership a state of the leader or the result on a leader’s attempt to influence? Do all leaders guide? Do they only guide?
A leader does not only guide. That is a marker for me as the primary way I choose to function in this role.
Leader is a role we fill; a leader does not always lead, sometimes they follows as another member of the team leads. Leaders fill a host of other functions such as plan, organize, direct, coach, manage, etc.
How we lead is a reflection of who we are (i.e. our “state” – values, beliefs, emotional maturity, primary motivators, level of professional development, personality, etc.) so from that lens, it is perhaps understandable the challenge of arriving at a one definitive declaration of “leader”
I use my definition as a place from which my peers and staff can hold conversation about expectations and accountabilities about how we are with each other and how we choose to conduct business with each other and others
Well said, Khwezi. I like to say leadership is a dance, not a parade.
Hi Jesse. I am so with you. The concept of (primarily business related)leadership is a mess. Three thoughts:
These days “leadership” is primarily a marketing exercise by academics and consultants who sell a panacea (in the form of a book or a 2-day training program) for whatever ails a business… that’s why, as you point out, there are so many adverbs and adjectives put in front of the word…. it’s not a new perspective or new research, just a marketing exercise.
I’m not sure that a solution for any dilemma like this (the evolution of a word’s meaning) is to go back to etymological roots or olden day semantics or ancient Greek or Latin. That technique smells of logical rationalisation for something you’ve already decided on.
Rather, why not follow Charlie Munger’s problem solving philosophy of “invert, always invert.” Therefore the starting point for “leadership” is that it’s not a process, or something someone does. Rather it’s an outcome, it’s what you get. It’s what happens when you’re (the leader)not there. It’s what happens when the follower thinks no-one is watching.
Lastly, we need to get far more pragmatic, and far less academic with this debate. Especially the mythical distinction between leadership and management. Your definition of leadership could be equally applied to the managers I work with… we need to look at what these people really do in the work place. I doubt that they would ever be in a situation where they ask themselves “Hmmm, now let me see?? Is it time for me to be a manager, or time to be a leader?”
Love your work. Mark
You raise many good points about the result of the current lack of clarity in our use language. I agree that any definition needs to be pragmatic and not academic, also agree that leadership is an outcome, not a process. Actually, there’s only one point I do not agree with you on. I believe that since we’re looking at language, we have to include linguistics and trace the evolution of the meaning over time. Otherwise, we might as well make up a new word. Much thanks for your cogent thoughts and taking the time to share them!
Jesse, re making up a new word. Exactly my point. Leadership is so convoluted, messy and, for most workers, meaningless. So much time, effort, and money has been spent on trying to reach this business nirvana for little pay-off (as your article and many others point out). So why not make up a new word or find another one that has all the pragmatism that describes and reflects what actually happens in the workplace.
Alfie Kohn summed this whole thing up perfectly:
“There is a time to admire the grace and persuasive power of an influential idea, and a time to fear its hold over us.
The time to worry is when the idea is so widely shared that we no longer even notice it; when it is so deeply rooted that it feels to us like plain common sense.
At the point when objections are not answered any more because they are no longer even raised, we are not in control.
We do not have the idea. It has us.”
We no longer have Leadership. It has us.
The thought has occurred to me, too. Your word?
Jesse, keeping in mind the context of this post and the discussion so far … my choice is “management.” And yes, I know, it’s not a new word as such, rather I see a lot of value in Gary Hamel’s work in redefining it or taking a necessary step in the evolution of the way we work.
In the people that I work with “management/ manager” is in their job description, on their business cards, and it’s in common usage in the workplace.
The surprising thing is that I rarely come across the management vs leadership BS that you see frequently… you know “a leader does this terrific thing and a manager does this crappy thing.” This spurious distinction was invented in the mid-20th century by consultants and academics as a way of marketing leadership. It’s a classic use of the “barbarians at the gate” tactic. The other classic use is in politics and I’m sure you’re seeing many examples it now in the Presidential election process.
Who knows, maybe even “management 2.0” or “managership” (but that’s more a book title than a movement)
All good points, Mark! It is a different discussion, but an important one. And we should include the word used in the field of education – “administrator.’ I wonder if these distinction are an issue in other languages.
A very useful contribution to the mini-industry of defining leadership. I like your emphasis that leadership is a social contract. It requires the consent of the led. I wonder how you think about replacing the word “phenomenon” with “agreement”? Because as you illustrate, leadership without agreement is either ineffectual or coercive.
Leadership is an extended agreement that occurs when one influences the direction people are going and unites them toward accomplishing a common goal.
A good thought to chew on, John! Thanks so much for adding your insights to this conversation.
thank you for dissecting the word leadership and forcing me to really define for myself what it is.
i agree it is taking people along with you in a common purpose
So glad to hear that! For so many years we glossed over it by saying “leadership is an influence process” and quickly moved on, hoping no one would question it.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stated – “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes”. I always find it a pleasure when someone observes the obvious in such a striking way – ”a bolt of the obvious” ….. the definition of leadership is not at all clear …. and in addition, does the work to explore it further and discover the less obvious about it.
It is also a pleasure to be continually surprised as you work your way through the blog: oh yes, that makes sense – one of the reason we have trouble with the concept of leadership is that “it is rooted …. (in) authority and hierarchy. Or, if no one follows are you leading? This actually leads me to a question: Are you leading by doing something that everyone in the present ignores, but that someone in the future follows, that then brings you out of your non-leader obscurity – often after you are gone?
Also liked the integration of the concept of leadership influencing people to go somewhere … And my favorite was the concept of the leader as a phenomenon that emerges. This allows and supports the definition of leadership in the quick moment, in the stepping forward and moving people around you forward a notch and then stepping back, making room for another to step forward, until all are engaged with the best and brightest of everyone present.
This is a lovely ‘sail’, Jesse ..look forward to continuing.
Really helpful feedback, Sharon! Love following your own thinking process, and especially your description at the end of the dance of leadership.
Thanks so much for taking the time to share your insights.
Jesse – I am one of the 86% disillusioned with the leadership we see today. In fact I am despairing. What we are encountering is manipulation. Although leadership influences the direction people are going and maybe unites them towards accomplishing some sort of nebulous common goal, I would like to see the definition of leadership with a qualitative element implicit in it somewhere. Some of the most nefarious individuals in history can be described as leaders. What we have today is leadership replaced by manipulation.
I’m with you, Dorothy. I see having a good definition of leadership as a jumping off point to dig into these pressing issues.
I’ve seen and experienced different models of leadership since I became one myself. I agree with your point of view, but I think there’s a lot more to it. If you want to be followed, you have to prove your worth being followed, and be enough down to earth to understand nothing can be achieved (not in the optimal way) without your group. You have to give credit and at times let go, and give some trust in order to be trusted.
Thank you for the article, I enjoyed it.
All good qualities of effective leadership. Thanks for adding your thoughts, Malvina.
Your ability to problem deeply always fascinates me. I agree with the notion of a natural phenomenon.The ability to make connections, to speak clearly and to frame messages so everyone hears something compelling is essential for influence. We are also persuaded by people with conviction and passion. We are influenced by people whom we think we can trust. Lose or misuse any of this and a leader’s power vanishes.
Sometime ago, I looked at the other definitions of leader and found it instructive in bringing together the various facets.
After the traditional definition of leader, a leader is defined as “a conductor or the principal performer in an orchestral section”. Finding ways to bring together the different talents of employees or volunteers so that all play from the same sheet of music and blend their instruments into a harmonious whole is a skill demonstrated by the finest of leaders!
A leader is also defined as the foremost animal in a harnessed team. Do we not look to leaders to guide the way, joined shoulder by shoulder to the rest of the team?
Leader is also defined as “a duct for conveying warm air from a furnace.” What is more conveying of warmth than a person who cares!
Just some other thoughts to consider!
I especially love the metaphor of the leader being “harnessed” to the team. Thanks for the metaphors and your insights, Eileen!
So true Malvina! The trick is to find those to trust and let them go for it.
…and to continue watching to make sure they maintain your trust
Ah, the age-old dilemma of defining leadership. Back when I was in graduate school, the university was switching to a new library and getting set to ditch a ton of management and organizational development books, so I swooped up a dozen of them. I went through each one in a futile attempt to lock in on a common definition of leadership. All were different, but most included the words “behaviors”, “goal”, and “influence.”
I like your definition and intrigued by the word “phenomenon”. Leadership can surely be that, particularly when it emerges spontaneously. That said, because leaders are often appointed or selected – at least in most organizational settings – with little or no input from followers, leadership is rarely a naturally occurring phenomenon. Even non-phenomenological and non-emergent leadership (i.e., appointed leadership) can produce effective leaders.
I do a lot of work with Chicago-based construction companies, most of which are unionized. They pave the runways at O’Hare Airport, wire the lights at Wrigley Field, and keep the Chicago Metro Train running. I’ve very rarely seen leadership emerge as a natural phenomenon. It nearly always follows a hierarchical structure, and leadership is mostly a function of length-of-service (i.e., “experience”). It may not be progressive or sophisticated or egalitarian, but it provides predictability and reporting clarity. For unionized construction companies, where the safety stakes are high, it works.
I agree that leadership should be about momentum and moving people toward a better condition. Leadership is also about getting results. Uniting people toward tangible goals is part of it. The fight for Civil Rights was a movement that pursued a more just and equitable society. But passing the Civil Rights act was a common goal that made the movement’s results tangible.
Good stuff. Thanks for the thought-provoking post in search of a more perfect definition. It’s a search that we should always keep in front of us, me thinks.
Hi Bill! So glad this sparked your thinking, and thanks so much for taking the time to share your insights here. Very helpful to know that you found the same commonalities that I did when searching through definitions: “behaviors”, “goal”, and “influence.” I agree that we don’t see leadership emerge naturally in the large corporations we both work with. But if you look at leadership as a phenomenon that emerges, instead of as a role or an action, it explains why, even within this kind of structure, some leaders simply are not able to influence things to go the way they want, and why some leaders don’t lead. Also some of the large, global organizations I work with actually depend on leadership to emerge because they are too complex to manage in a traditional hierarchy. I’m not wedded to this definition, but wonder if considering it more fully might “open doors” to a deeper understanding of a word we’ve been tossing around for a long time.
I’ve been thinking more on your definition. As a broad and pure definition, it really works. Pure leadership truly is an emerging (and often unexpected) phenomenon. Neighbors who marshal together to rebuild a friend’s home after a natural disaster fit this definition. Even scary leadership, like Lord of the Flies, can fit within this definition.
When considered against most workplace or political structures, the definition seems more aspirational. Sometimes leadership does, as you suggest, emerge as a natural phenomenon. Most of the time, at least in these settings, reality often strays from this definition. It’s wonderful when it happens, but it’s also rare.
I hope you continue this thread further. Clearly it has struck a cord, as evidenced by the number of comments you’re getting. In an upcoming blog I’d love for you to share some examples that bring the definition to life. Thanks!
I definitely plan to do that and to pursue this thread. There is a lot of energy and stimulating thinking in these comments. Thanks for coming back with your further thoughts, Bill. Very helpful.
My definition: “leadership is the act of stimulating a response in others” It’s the how that is interesting Ric Townsend
Much thanks for weighing in, Ric.
This is a very stimulating, thought-provoking post, Jesse. I agree with your definition of leadership, better than dictionary meaning. I think there are titular and nominal leaders as opposed to true leaders.
In addition, for me, true leadership means being a catalyst for change, and it requires 3 elements: an original vision, a master plan or roadmap to that vision, and a loyal, unified and inspired following.
Managers may have only 1 or 2 elements, but they’re valuable to leaders because they’re the ones who make the detailed plans, organize and coordinate, and control resources — tasks which a leader may not do.
Thanks for adding your views, Katherine. Indeed, according to this definition, change is a result of influencing direction, and there is no leadership without followers.
Hi Jesse – Great post. I appreciate your idea about leadership “emerging”. I think this word is powerful because it lends to the idea that it can happen anywhere – with anyone. A title is not required.
I think this is the major implication of this definition. Thanks for calling it out, Scott.
Great. Given how crucial communication is, do we need to add a modifier such as “by speaking”?…thinking here of all those great speeches in some cases heard by many (politicians etc) but in most by only a few (HQ, locker room, board room, front room etc).
A good question, Fraser. Although I would explore it the context of “how” leadership occurs, rather than “what” it is.
Great thoughts Jessey..
to me, a leader who leads the team with a minimal interference. Flexibility should be the key trait..
I’m thinking the same thing. When we see leadership as a phenomenon, one of the implications is the leader should be aware of when it is naturally occurring within the team and not interfere.
Jesse, I was just sitting and contemplating when a different sense of “leadership” came to me. It just arose unbidden. And it was actually like a phenomenon—like an “occurrence” that came out of nowhere, it just floated up into the silence, into a calm mind. It was like an “emergence” of a subtler kind of “knowing”. Although many may think this perspective to be “far out”, it somehow seems significant for what the future of leadership could mean, so I’m going to share it anyway.
So there was this intuition, or insight, along with a dash of despair about what’s currently happening in our world. There was a deep sense of spacious, and an awareness that leadership is, or has the potential to be, more like a shared guidance, or “happening”, that comes from a deeper more relaxed “field” of consciousness. People, with practice, actually can have the capacity to come together and share the same “field” of awareness! I’ve heard this kind of thing referred to as the “we” space or “transparent communication.” I could see the possibility of a new kind of leadership, where everyone’s shared contribution leads to the best possible outcome in any circumstance, time, or place. And this occurrence, possibility, and guidance is seen as ongoing.
This view of leadership as “phenomenon” reminds me of a deeper kind of insight, or “knowing”, that sometimes happens. It gives us a glimpse, or a peek, of things beyond our usual habitual perspective. I think many of us, when we look back at our lives, have experienced these kinds “peaks” but we usually forget about them. I don’t want to forget about this one.
Hi Barbara, So glad I sparked your thinking and looking forward to what you learn as you contemplate this further!
Hi Jesse – it’s been a long while since I’ve spent so much time thinking about a word!
“Clearly separates the phenomenon of leadership from the role of leader” – I have a problem with this assertion as it appears to be illogical. The role of a leader is to provide leadership. Therefore in your definition should “one” not be replaced by “a leader”?
Also “the direction people are going”. A leader has the ability to change the direction, therefore should this not be “influences people and unites them”?
There is definitely a problem with the label of “leader” we loosely ascribe to presidents, politicians and business heads when in many cases they are obviously not leaders. A hierarchical position of authority definitely doesn’t warrant the term.
My definition would then be “Leadership is a phenomenon that occurs when a leader influences people and unites them toward accomplishing a common goal”.
Great post and good luck with synthesising your final definition.
Delighted to hear this sparked your thinking, Patrick! And thanks for sharing your thoughts here. I agree it is the role of a leader to provide leadership. It sounds like you are saying that anyone who provides leadership is a leader. And if so, I agree with that as well.
A couple of facets of leadership that I think are important:
1. Leadership is about leaders acting as servants to followers. Dictators may succeed for limited periods of time, but all dictatorial or highly directive leadership styles have no shelf life beyond navigating a society or organization out of an immediate crisis. Leaders who cling to the “do as I say” and “my way or the highway” models eventually run out of followers or are deposed (see Thatcher, Margaret).
2. The best way to recognize a leader is by the presence of willing followers. Nothing else is particularly useful as a measure. That is, however, difficult to measure since most people do not get to choose their leaders, except in elections (and there is a lot of good evidence that electorates are not good at choosing leaders that way, judging by the apparent level of disaffection with the political process in many Western countries).
3. Once you realize that principle (2) cannot be tested, it becomes easier to see where resistance to change initiatives arises in corporations. Most lower-level people see change initiatives as the products of remote, transient, out of touch leaders, and hence those are regarded as optional and ephemeral.
I like your point about “willing followers.” You can force behavior, but you can’t force a willing heart. Measures of engagement might be one way to identify that.
An interesting issue you raise is how difficult it is for real leaders to emerge within a system that isn’t working. Thanks for adding to the conversation, Graham.
Hi Jesse -Couldn’t read all the posts-maybe my points have already been covered.Leadership to me cannot happen without some critical elements. A context,a leader,a set of followers and shared interests.What evolves out of the interaction of these elements is a dynamic between the leader and the followers.If we look at the dynamic as a force that stimulates change within a system then leadership is probably that dynamic.The dynamic manifests itself in the form of vision,goal orientation,visible cohesion and traction.The Dynamic also helps me think about power that defines the relation between leaders and followners. I must add here that I am fan of Prof.B.Kellerman, whose books I refer to quite often.You may find my thoughts influenced by her writings.
I agree that thinking of it as a dynamic is helpful as this takes a more systemic perspective, rather than a linear “cause and effect.” It’s a similar idea to what I was getting at with the word “phenomenon.” Thanks for your thoughts and for the reference to Barbara Kellerman.
I really enjoyed reading this because it challenges the common definitions found in literature and creates a more humanly perception of leadership. Thanks
So glad to hear this works for you, Grace.
Leadership – “Doing nothing much from a distance while the group exults in their own victory, after having done something very special to set them up for success.”
Appreciate your point that much of what consists of leadership is not necessarily visible to others. You remind me of the quote from Lao Tzu “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, they will say: we did it ourselves.” Thanks for adding to the conversation, Malcolm. And best regards to you down under!
My best thinking on leadership to date: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/my-best-thinking-leadership-asen-conev-pmp
Fascinating! We both went through a similar process and came to quite similar conclusions. Many thanks for sharing your thoughts here, Asen.
Like this post Jesse Lynn. Consider this: trust is an emergent quality in a system. Without trust, I’m not sure leadership “as a phenomenon that emerges” can happen and be effective. So interdependent relationship exists between these two emergent states of being in any system.
Appreciate your thoughts on the relationship between trust and leadership, Joann. Thanks for sharing your insights.