Leadership Defined

What is leadership?What is leadership? And does our understanding of it need to change for today's world? When we think of leadership we visualize a larger-than-life individual in charge of some group - team, company or country. 

We try to define leadership by thinking about great leaders, which means that leadership is glorified. Unfortunately, this approach overlooks everyday kinds of leadership. There are numerous ways to define leadership. Conventional leadership is about being in charge of people, but leadership defined as an influence process explains how it can be shown bottom-up, not just top-down. Which concept of leadership most appeals to you?

Conventional Leadership

Leaders, as normally conceived, take charge of groups. Most definitions of leadership don't do a very good job of differentiating between leadership and management, or else leadership is glorified and management rejected. In most definitions, both leaders and managers occupy positions of authority. Leadership is a formal role in which leaders make strategic decisions, are good at managing people and have emotional intelligence. They sell the tickets for the journey AND take us to the destination, according to popular conceptions.

Where do you want to go from here?

Odd Kinds Of Leadership - What Is Leadership Today?

There is a lot of leadership that can't be accounted for in terms of being in charge of people:

  • Green leadership - promoting green practices to the world at large - having a leadership impact on far-flung communities.
  • Bottom-up leadership - convincing management to adopt a new product or change a process.
  • Thought leadership - showing the way for colleagues across an industry sector with innnovative thinking.
  • Leading by example - working smarter than your colleagues and influencing them to follow  your lead.
  • Martin Luther King having a leadership impact on the U.S. government and the general population.
  • Market leadership - leadership of one group, like Apple, over its competitors.
  • We need a broader definition of leadership to account for these diverse kinds of leadership: showing the way for others, either by example or by advocating a new direction.

Leadership Reinvented

Leadership = promoting new directions by example or advocating by a better way. It works through influence, not by making decisions for people. Management = getting things done in a way that makes best use of all resources. All employees can promote new directions. Leadership can be shown bottom-up or sideways.

Green leaders, for example, are activists. So was Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Activists become leaders when they gain a large following, most often through non-violent protest, having the courage to challenge the status quo and stand up for what they believe in. Surely, this is the real meaning of leadership. Activists, like green leaders, have two kinds of followers - those who join their camps and those who adopt their proposals without joining their group. Hence, a community in Australia could follow a green leader in Norway without the two even knowing each other.

The second type of follower shows that leadership is possible without the leader being in charge of those who follow. We need to understand this kind of leadership to explain how leadership can be shown upwards by front-line employees who promote new products or services. See Thought Leadership or Bottom-up Leadership for more on this theme.

Leadership, as defined here, does not manage people - that's management. Leaders don't make decisions. The ACT of leadership is pure influence. Leaders, like green leaders, sell the tickets for the journey. Managers drive the bus to the destination.

By defining management as a process of achieving goals efficiently, we include self-management, managing your time, money and career. Management is like investment, the desire to get the best return on all of our resources. Hence, management is not by definition a role. The same principles of management are applied by all employees, including managers.

Similarly, leadership should not be seen as a role either. People in positions of authority occasionally SHOW leadership, but then so does everyone else.

The Changing Meaning Of Leadership

Our definition of leadership needs to change for a knowledge driven world that is no longer rigidly hierarchical, stable or static but one that is fluid, fast changing and less formally structured. Leadership has always been based on power. For the conventional view, this means the power of personality to dominate a group.

But in our knowledge driven world, business is a war of ideas where the power to innovate and promote new products is the new basis of leadership. This is in tune with Richard Florida's book, "The Rise of the Creative Class" which argues that more and more work requires creative thinking. This is the power on which leadership will be based in the future.

Such leadership can only be occasional influence, because no one can monopolize good ideas. The idea that leadership means occupying the dominant position in a hierarchy is a dinosaur because anyone with critical knowledge that could alter business direction can show leadership. This is thought leadership and it can be shown by front line employees who don't manage anyone. It can be bottom-up as well as top-down. It can even  come from outside. It can be shown between organizations too as in market leadership. Only management is a formal role.

Conventional leadership theories paint a distorted picture of leadership by focusing narrowly on people in positions of power. These theories are in crisis today because they face an unpalatable dilemma: either they have to say that CEOs no longer lead, because the world is too complex for them to know it all or they have to change the meaning of leadership. The latter option defines leadership as being a facilitator, like the level 5 leaders of Jim Collins in his book Good to Great, who grill top people with questions to elicit ideas for new directions from them. This option preserves the idea that CEOs are leaders.

Another option is to retain the notion that leaders promote new directions but to say that CEOs no longer have a monopoly on leadership. By saying that leadership means promoting new directions, such as new products and services, everyone can show leadership. This means that CEOs manage as much as lead. But, we need to upgrade management to make it a more positive concept. At present, management is cast in a negative light.

How does our definition of leadership depend on followers? Do we need a concept of followership to understand leadership?

What's Your Definition Of Leadership?

Everyone has a unique definition of leadership. What's yours? Why not show some leadership right now by sharing your definition of leadership with others in the comments section below?

See also: Leadership Traits, Leadership as InfluenceHow To Be a Leader and Leadership Style. How are your self-limiting beliefs preventing you from being the leader you can be?

For more unconventional thinking on leadership see our sister site LEAD2XL

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