Defining leadership

How might we define leadership?

This is a question I’m often asked, and especially so since I wrote my book Fair Value – reflections on good business.  Behind the inquiries, there is a sense of a wish to make the process of learning to lead more formulaic and less intuitive. That my book was primarily about values and their adaptability doesn’t satisfy their desire for clarity. It seems that we are comfortable with the idea that values can be subjective, but in the case of leadership we want to pin it down, identify its essential traits, so we can measure and monitor our progress.

Last week, I was listening to a podcast by Ben Morton interviewing the colossus in the world of leadership that is Jim Kouzes. In his book, The Leadership Challenge, co-written with Barry Posner, they define the process of leadership as ‘the art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations.’  That seems about as good as it gets, and I’d encourage you to check out any of their publications, or indeed listen to Ben’s excellent podcast conversation. 

And yet, I’m still uneasy with definitions of this sort.

In fairness to Kouzes and Posner there is much more to their work than a mere definition. As experienced researchers, they recognize the need for flexibility, and it’s surely significant that their headline summary describes leadership as an ‘art’ not a science.  Furthermore, their model identifies five exemplary practices that include role modeling, vision, challenge, enablement, and engaging the heart! In many ways, the practice of these tenets is similar to the principles of virtue theory – the idea that we learn to be good citizens, not so much by following strict doctrine as by demonstrating good behavior in, or daily lives. 

In a different context, I was reflecting on this difference after listening to Malcom Gladwell’s superb Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon. In the academic tradition, the learning of an instrument goes hand in hand with an understanding of musical theory, the relationship of chords and their progressions, harmonies, structure… And yet there are others, like Simon, who play largely by ear, their genius guided by an intuition of what sounds right rather than any set formula.  At the apogee of attainment, there is invariably a fusion of the two. 

And it’s this goal of a synthesis that shapes my personal sense of leadership and values. 

The two aspects, it seems to me, are indivisible —indeed, more than that, they cannot properly exist without each other. For if we were to take Kouzes’ definition above — and strip it of any element of virtue —then we might reasonably conclude that Stalin or Hitler are as equally great in their leadership qualities as, say, George Washington or Mahatma Gandhi. Some dry academics might be comfortable with that assessment, but I’d counter that it’s not how we think and act in everyday life. In practice, we describe the former as despots and the latter as heroes, whose qualities we admire and seek to emulate.

And the key difference is in the values they lived by.

A while ago I took a walk outside the city and on the trees and rocks were many lichens. For centuries, we regarded these humble organisms as a sort of plant, and superficially it’s true that they look a little like moss. But, in fact, we now know that they are a combination of a fungus and an alga — a symbiotic life form that exists only because each plays its part. Interestingly, they are a superb indicator of our air quality, almost indestructible but flourishing most when environmental conditions are right. As an allegory for sustainable leadership, there are few better examples.

That’s a somewhat lyrical note to conclude on. But my point is that perhaps we need to see leadership and values in a more expressive and emotional light. For I believe it is the subjective and yet intuitively right elements that are most critical for our understanding of the terms. In their search for clarity, this answer may not be what my enquirers expected, or indeed hoped, to find. But the truth is the best definitions are not just linguistically tight, rather, they are those that are most deeply felt. 

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