Defining the Essence of Leadership

Leadership has been studied for over 80 years without unequivocal or definitive conclusions about its essence.  Warren Bennis, a prolific writer on the topic, has suggested that there are more than 850 different definitions of what constitutes leadership. His favourite and most often quoted, I think, is the following: “Managers do things right, leaders do the right things.” If that is the case, then today, more than ever before, we need more people who are doing the right things and who are willing to lead.

This morning, I was energized to discover that an organization whose values I share has found a proven leader. My renewed hopes for the future of this enterprise is predicated upon the fundamental belief that nothing of great consequence can be achieved without leadership. For me, leaders do make the difference.

Defining leadership is not easy.  It is likely akin to efforts at defining love, jazz, or pornography: You know when you are in the presence of someone you love, you know when you hear good jazz and you know pornography when you see it. But, in each and every case, you can’t precisely define what exactly it is. We often regret the absence of leadership yet frequently fail to detect or articulate its presence. And to generalize about anything is to lose the essence of what we’re seeking to describe.

The concept of leadership has become increasingly debased  by its overuse, much like such related notions as excellence, quality and professionalism. In my work, these have increasingly become words without meaning. Hence, my effort in compiling this Journal over time is to compile a body of work that enables greater understanding and insight into the concept of “smart” (or what I sometimes refer to as 21st century) leadership.

Many have paid the price of being a leader.  Robert Evans suggests why this may be so: “To be a leader is to give of your energies at a level that would give an elephant the vapours, to be told over and over again that you do not understand the problem, to be held up to ridicule, assaulted by small, mean and devious people with a perceptual range of one inch, scratched at by uniformed journalists, stonewalled by cretins and betrayed by friends.” But perhaps he is being overly harsh in his appraisal.

One difficulty in understanding what constitutes leadership  is that most definitions tend to focus on a leader’s characteristics, not on what he or she actually does. The conventional literature reminds us that leaders are intelligent, hard working, competitive, caring, flexible, trustworthy, and so on. But we all know people who possess these characteristics who simply are not leaders. Focusing on leadership attributes alone is therefore not helpful. And holding a high position is also certainly not synonymous with leadership. The incumbent may simply be the chief bureaucrat.

I personally like the notion that leadership is knowing where to go, whereas management is knowing how to get there. I think leadership, simply defined, is energizing others to achieve desired goals. This, for example, is the feeling I had this morning. It is also the energy and inspiration I felt almost 40 years ago in working for my first boss. Whenever I left a meeting with him, I always knew what to do, I wanted to do it, and I thought I could do it. Yes, I believe he was a great leader. Fortunately, he was also my mentor.

Leaders need followers and followers need leaders.  It is a symbiotic relationship. If people do not willingly and enthusiastically follow you, you are not a leader despite the title on your door, your seeming charisma or your self-perception. Though I cannot now recall the source, I once read the following: “In every human endeavour, 78% follow, 5% lead and 17% don’t know the difference.” This is tantamount to saying that there are those who make things happen, those who watch things happen and those who are wont to ask, “What happened?”

Leadership is not a quick-fix formula or fad like “one-minute management.”  It is an acquired skill set. No one is born to lead, not even monarchs. Through humility and open-minded learning, we discover the importance of attributes and concepts that can make a difference and how best to utilize them under difficult, challenging and opportunistic circumstances.

There is a recipe for becoming a smart leader.  This I know to be true. The difficulty lies not so much in understanding it but simply in doing it – stepping up to the plate in those situations that most demand it. So the issue is not really to find a universal definition or standard for leadership but rather to develop a personal action plan for becoming one.