How the word ‘leadership’ means (at least) three different things

There is a common-sense logic to the idea that leadership brings order from chaos, which makes it a fundamentally desirable goal. The problem is that no-one can completely agree what the word means. Whenever we ask, “What is Leadership?” we are, I’m afraid to say, asking a leading question. Leading questions take you towards a desired answer and lead you in a direction not of your own choosing or control.

I think there are a couple of problems for leadership:

  1. It is too vaguely, too numerously and too poorly defined as a construct. The word comes with so many entrenched beliefs and assumptions that we may have lost sight of what it signifies. Many theories of leadership are simply old wine in new bottles.
  2. It is too easily perverted, and frequently used for short-term gain. Much that is negative and detrimental to the long-term health of our economic and social system is kept hidden under a cloak of power worn by people in leadership positions. Leadership is too often person-centred. We endow leaders with responsibility, which they may or may not live up to.

Because we carry so much baggage with leadership, perhaps it’s time to re-think our language and our intentions. We need a debate on how relevant the L-word is for dealing with what is coming for management and business in the next 50 years or so. What is at stake may be our collective, sustainable future – and perhaps the avoidance of systemic, unintended consequences of our own past and present actions.

Three definitions

For many practitioners, leadership is a fairly straightforward answer to an even more straightforward and universal question, “Who’s in charge?” This treats leadership as rank, hierarchy, status and power. As such, leaders are those who seek authority to direct others. On the other hand, not everyone in charge is “a leader”, and not every leader is the person “in charge”.  Leadership can also be the visionary answering of a second question – “What could be?” This is the idea of someone wanting to make something from nothing, of doing new things, and perhaps also of wanting to excite other people enough to help bring it about.  That sort of zeal can bubble up anywhere in an organisation.

Then there is a third option. Leadership is implied in the question “What is followership?” For some reason, we almost never ask it this way round. We evoke leadership when we have the urge to be influenced by someone else.  There may be no motive from the leader to be in charge, or to start a following; it is thrust upon them (think of the crowd following the title character in The Life of Brian and you have an example of that).

So, why are we addicted to using one word for many questions?

I propose we invent different words for each of these three basic questions. We need a new notion for “people in charge”, another for “people with dreams and ideas”, and a third when we mean “people we’re following”. If and when they combine or overlap in some people, then maybe THAT can be what is meant by leadership.

by Chris Dalton

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