What is leadership?

What is leadership?

We associate many aphorisms about leadership. Leaders walk the talk, have a compelling vision, model the way, serve the people, inspire people’s best selves. Peter Drucker quipped, “Management is about doing things right. Leadership is about doing the right things.”

Sometimes I think we end up with a laundry list of ideals that no human being can live up to. And indeed leaders cannot fulfill our every fantasy. Shackleton had the absolute dedication to the lives of his men on the ice floes, but had a mistress at home. Ghandi inspired millions but hurt many close to him.

Let’s start with a more fundamental question. What is the function or purpose of leadership?

Leaders enable groups of people to act. So one could say that the purpose of wise leaders is to enable groups of people to act wisely in the face of the challenges or opportunities that life presents.

If this is the case, then the kind of leadership required will depend on the community involved and the challenges that they face.

As someone I was talking to astutely noted, Shackleton was very authoritarian. Usually we associate authoritarian leadership with “bad” leadership, but in this case, the survival situation demanded strong leadership. This doesn’t mean he didn’t care deeply about his men. He was actually highly attuned to the social dynamics at play. He was also dedicated to the survival of his crew.

In other situations, collaborative leadership may be called for particularly where the integration of multiple perspectives is needed such as in the designing and building of a new car.

What is leadership then?

Here is a richer definition from the Action Studies Institute. Ponder it, break it down, and next time when we talk we’ll go a little deeper.

a continuous journey of commitment, learning and action
in a dynamic and often conflicted social ecology
of roles, co-responsibilities, and interests,

with the objective
of enhancing and securing the quality of community life

by extending the capacities of the community,
the individuals within it,
and the cultural resources they draw on

in order to successfully meet
existing and emerging threats and opportunities.

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