What is Leadership?

By | May 2, 2013

It seems such a simple question: what is leadership? As we said in the introductory article, we are not trying to come up with the “definitive” all encompassing, all bells ringing answer to what leadership is at this point.  What we needed for our project was a working definition, something we can use and relate to in our discourse. In this post, we begin to define what leadership is, en route to identifying effective leadership skills.

What is Leadership?

What is leadership in context?

First a wee bit of context. A follow-up question to “what is leadership” that is often raised is this: Are leaders born or made? (Please don’t yawn too quickly – the fact that this question has been around so long says something.)  To get a start on this I’d like to turn to the arts.  We could ask a similar question, i.e. “born or made?”, of painters, sculptors, musicians, poets or writers.  We could, then, also categorise leaders as artists.  There is actually a good argument for doing just that. Then when we ask the question we ask it of all artists of all mediums.  While there are “naturals” or “prodigies”, most of the art we experience comes from an early dedication to mastery, a nice way of saying lots and lots of hard work.  We see the end product but not the hours, days, months and even years of hard work and dedication that have gone into developing the talent that led to that product.

The same with leaders, some are naturals, perhaps even prodigies but the majority of what is good leadership, is the result of intentional focus and discipline.  And what do artists, including leaders do?  They tend to focus on creating things that did not yet exist; on expressing something that has not yet been expressed.  The poet Philip Larkin went so far as to say that “on that green day” when you examine your life, the worst catastrophe is to find that you have only tread where others have tread before, but in a different manner.

Let’s add one more bit of context.  That is the context of organization with people, resources and missions.  It is from this context that we will draw our first working definition of what is leadership.  Some of you might call this more a condition, than a definition, but here goes:

An individual is engaged in Leadership whenever they are creating (conceptualizing, conceiving, generating) a future that does not yet exist.

What are the implications of leadership?

Let’s take a moment to explore this just a bit further.  The word lead implies a few things.  One is being in front, influencing those who might choose to follow.  A second is dynamics.  Leading tends to bring up the sense of movement, toward something.  The toward something brings up another implication which is that leading implies movement toward some destination, real or symbolic.  Lastly, leading implies a motivational relationship with others.  While we might be jointly or singly conceiving of a future, it only comes out into the world when we engage others, thus our link to communication. So appreciating all of these implications is essential to develop effective leadership skills.

What is the difference between leadership and management?

Now, to clarify the distinction from management, we could add:

Management then, is about planning, organizing and deploying the resources to bring that future about.

Management then, is less about conceiving and generating the destination and more about putting things in place to get there, i.e. resources, plans, people etc.  It is the implementation arm of the partnership between leadership and management, between conceiving of a future and making it happen.

In our streamlined organisations, most leaders are doing a combination of both.  This is why I like to refer to organizational or business leadership.  Though answering “what is leadership?” is not paramount, what it is important to be aware of and to distinguish is when you are leading and when you are managing.  They call on different skills and capabilities and from a communication standpoint, different voices.

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