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.

Lessons from Shackleton’s Expedition

shackleton_03The Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton set sail on the Endurance with twenty-seven men to cross the uncharted continent. But a day before he could set foot on solid ice, the Endurance was locked and eventually crushed by the ice floes. It took months of waiting in one of the harshest places on the planet, making a harrowing journey over 850 miles of the most dangerous seas, sending a skeleton crew to reach a tiny whaling outpost, and returning to rescue the remaining crew. All 28 survived to tell the story and it is told beautifully in Alfred Lansing’s ENDURANCE: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage.

Much is made about Shackleton’s leadership in keeping the crew together and focused on what was important. And there is no doubting that he played a significant role in the crew’s survival. Shackleton chose people of hardy character appropriate for the journey. He navigated the social dynamics between the men to keep stress down. He also maintained confidence and reason in the face of duress.

However, this story also illustrates that leadership is not a one-person show. There must be an ecology of leaders that provide the needed capabilities. Here is a list of other roles that were crucial to the crew’s survival:

  • The Navigator – without Worsley, the crew would never have know where they were and it would have been impossible to be able to reach a tiny island in the middle of the vast ocean.
  • The Doctors – Macklin and McIlroy performed surgery to keep crew members alive.
  • The Photographer – Hurley captured moments that would otherwise have been lost to history and as a result, we are able to learn from it today.
  • The Hunter – Wild’s unerring accuracy with a rifle brought down a sea lion and enabled the starving crew to eat for weeks afterwards.
  • The Up and Coming Leader – When the three lifeboats were used to cross the ocean, Worsley stepped up to take responsibility of captain of his ship in a way that drew the respect of others.
  • The Carpenters – without builders, they could not have made the lifeboats “sea-worthy”

There was a cook, a musician… and many more roles that the community of crewman needed to survive.

So often our idea of leadership is of the one person in authority. As a result, we focus all of our attention on that one person’s behaviours and actions.

The Point: If you want to assess the leadership of a team, then look at all the formal and informal leadership roles in the community.