What is Leadership?

Everyone I’ve met who’s in a leadership position mostly thinks they know what it is, but it’s always with a vague sense of what they’ve seen others do or think they should do.  There’s a danger in this practice because often, what they’ve learned is from people who had the same, vague sense of what it is and made it up as they went.

As a result, one of the problems that leaders face today is that they’re not sure exactly what they’re supposed to be doing, are often confused between leading and managing, and don’t make the time for serious reflection.  In fact, one of the greatest fears that many leaders who I’ve coached share privately is that “people will discover I’m just making this up;  I’m a phony.”  In some cases, this self-criticism has profound impact on what’s possible for the leader’s and organization’s future.

To better understand what leadership is, let’s take a look at some classic definitions.  Peter Drucker, whose writings contributed to the philosophical and practical underpinnings of modern business theory, had a simple definition: “someone who has followers.”  A 1970’s book called “Followership” famously began with “You know you’re a leader if you turn around and people are following you.”  If no one’s following, it doesn’t matter what your title is.

Warren Bennis, the “father” of contemporary leadership studies, defined it as “… a function of knowing yourself, having a vision that is well communicated, building trust among colleagues, and taking effective action to realize your own leadership potential.”

Jim Kouzes’ and Barry Posner’s decades-long research of millions of leaders (their book, “The Leadership Challenge,” first published in 1987, is in its sixth printing, ) defines leadership as “… a relationship between those who aspire to lead and those who choose to follow.”

These thought leaders spent their lives studying and thinking about leadership and seem to have come to a common conclusion: Leadership is highly personal, introspective, relationship-based, and able to create a compelling story of a future worth pursuing.  This leads to my three favorite, contemporary definitions.

Technology and business futurist, Joel Barker, defines leadership as “taking a group of people to a place they wouldn’t go by themselves.” 

Writer and professor David Foster Wallace wrote “Real leaders are people who help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”

The most impactful leadership definition I’ve learned is from Bob Dunham, founder of the Institute for Generative Leadership.  His generative definition describes what leaders do: “Leadership is the art of making declarations that other people commit to.”  Let’s examine that definition.  First, leadership is an art – a performing art.  Great performers know how to connect with their audiences and have high emotional intelligence, understanding how their emotions and authenticity impact their audiences.  Second, leadership is about making declarations (but not always!).  A declaration is “a commitment by a speaker to alter the context in which he or she is speaking; it alters the place we’re in and makes something happen that alters the way we meet.” (Julio Olalla).  These are statements that create the future and are directly related to achieving the leader’s vision.  Declarations must be used sparingly and in the right situations.  The key to effective declarations is that the listeners of the declaration must believe in the speaker’s ability to make that reality happen.  That’s why relationship and generating commitment are so important.  And that leads to the final component of this definition – that others commit to.  The ability to generate commitment is a core skill of effective leaders.

Why are more than 70% of the workforce not engaged in their work?  Why do so many leaders find it difficult to generate commitment?  Just what is commitment?  We’ll explore that issue in my next post.

© Geoff Davis, 9/14/18

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