Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What is distinct about Leadership?

As a leadership educator I am in a lot of conversations on leadership, both in person and online. I continue to be quite surprised that in spite of a lot of attention being paid to the concept of leadership by academics, professionals, and in the media, its meaning continues to be rather ambiguous and amorphous. From these conversations, the vast majority of people believe leadership to be needed in this world, and worth developing. Yet, very few seem to agree on what leadership is. Surprisingly, many believe that work to define it will undermine effective practice of it.

As a leadership educator, I am convinced that to more effectively develop leadership capacity, we must make our understanding of it more explicit. My intention here is to offer some thoughts on leadership to spark conversation on what is distinctive about leadership, and what is worth developing.

People seem to use the term leadership to represent a dimension of intentional social activity that fulfills individual and collective “reasons to be.” In many conversations, I notice that leadership is often used alongside, or interchangeably with other important activities in which people engage on a day to day basis to fulfill our aspirations as human beings--parenting, teaching, governing, counseling, managing, to name a few. Many people seem to talk about managing as leadership, governing as leadership, educating as leadership. To use the term leadership interchangeably with these other activities runs the risk of obscuring what is unique and special to that particular activity. For example, parenting is a very sacred, worthy, and complex process. If we are to include leadership as part of parenting, then I think it should be adding something distinctive to it. Otherwise, why employ the term leadership?

So what is distinctive about leadership, which when it gets added to other human activities, it brings added value and does not displace the uniqueness and complexity of these various activities? It occurs to me that incorporating leadership into existing human activities, such as parenting, managing, organizing, etc., should be that which fortifies or enhances it in some way. In other words, leadership is not a separate activity but an added value activity--a way of perceiving and attending to the larger process in which the specific activity is embedded, and from which the activity receives added benefits. Bringing leadership to such things as parenting and managing is analogous to creating optimal conditions for growing food--building up the nutrient quality of the soil, planting the proper varietal for a particular climate, making sure physical layout of the garden ensures sunlight and wind protection. The unique processes involved in the growth of the plant or tree are all present but food production and its nutritious value is fortified by the optimal conditions present.

I am curious to know what you think of this idea that leadership does not occupy the same logical category of other human activities such as parenting, managing and teaching. What about the idea that leadership is about fortifying these activities? And what do you think of the idea that leadership adds value by focusing on creating optimal conditions for these activities, which in turn enhances the results of these activities. Do you have examples of this way of making meaning of leadership? And lastly, if we are to view leadership in this way, what do you think should be developed in people?

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