You Don’t Know What Leadership Is

what is leadership?

You don’t know what leadership is.

It is a bold statement for me to make. One to which your response is probably an emphatic, “Yes I do.” Maybe even with an exclamation point.

However, when I respond by asking, “what is it?”, almost everyone struggles to articulate what leadership is. I contend that if you can’t articulate it, you don’t know what it is.

Some of you will argue that you can articulate what leadership is. You may even eloquently define it for me in simple or complex terms with a big “I got you grin”.

You may think you know what leadership is. However, how you define leadership is not how others define it. In fact, regardless of your definition, I bet I can find tens of thousands of people who will dispute it and tell you why you are wrong (and the response of, “yes, but I am right,” only works for my wife).

Is There One Definition Of Leadership?

There have been many brilliant minds over the years that have pontificated, defined, researched, and written about leadership. Some from an academic background like Stogdil and Mann from the mid 1900’s and some with practical backgrounds like Greenleaf and Patton.

These approaches often create dichotomies when defining leadership. One is that leaders are either born or made, though most of the recent research supports the idea that leaders can, in fact, be made. Another dichotomy is that the approaches tend to either focus on the leader or on the leader’s relationship with his/her followers. However, regardless of the focus, none of them have come up with, or agreed upon a satisfactory definition of leadership.

In the article “An Integrative Definition of Leadership”, Winston and Patterson reviewed over 160 articles and books on leadership and narrowed it down to 90 variables. Their “short” definition was over a page long and people still dispute it.

One of the problems we face in defining leadership is that the concept seems simple. And at one point in our history it was fairly simple: There was a person who was a leader by birthright or some sort of trait and people followed them because they were the leader.

Even today in certain environments leadership seems fairly simple. Take for example an enlisted soldier. Most people think of soldiers as they were in WWII. The soldier was trained to follow orders. Those of superior rank knew more and were better equipped to make decision. The enlisted men were followers, were given orders, and expected to follow them without question. Most people think this is how the military operates today, and to some extent it does. If you are a Corporal in firefight and the Sergeant tells you to move your ass, you do. However, with the dynamic environment soldiers face on today’s battlefield, even the Army is changing how it trains its soldiers.

The Army now wants soldiers to think and make decisions on the battlefield to a much greater degree than they did even 20 years ago. Now these followers are contributing to solutions. Leadership, even in the military, has been changing.

So, when I say, “you don’t know what leadership is,” I do not do so lightly. None of us really know what leadership is.

Rethinking the Source of Leadership

Leadership is an evolving concept that has become much more confusing than it used to be. I think the problem is based on the methods we use to try to define it. Since leadership is continuously evolving, so must our way of trying to understand it.

Instead of trying to define leadership, we should examine how we know when leadership occurs. Most of us, though we can’t truly define leadership, know when it occurs. And if we can figure out when leadership occurs, we get closer to understanding it.

So, how do we know when leadership occurs? I have only read one author who takes this approach to understanding leadership (though it is entirely possible that others have and I have not read their work). In the book, The Deep Blue Sea: Rethinking the Source of Leadership, Wilfred Drath from the Center for Creative Leadership approaches leadership not as something that exists on its own, but rather something that exists because we decide it exists. When you define leadership in your own way you are deciding it exists, while others who disagree with your definition might decide it does not.

Leadership does not exist independently of our perceptions. It exists exclusively because of our perceptions.

So, if leadership exists only in our perceptions, how do we know when it occurs?

Essentially, we can create what Drath calls knowledge principles, which are ideas or rules that are taken for granted to be true. These are shared creations of the people interacting together, rather than just one person’s perceptions. We use these to determine if leadership exists.

Since these knowledge principles are taken for granted to be true, Leadership’s existence becomes about what is meaningful to people as leadership. Because these knowledge principles are meaningful as leadership to people, they can say with certainty that leadership is happening for their group.

Leadership is what the group comes to understand it to be. There is no debate like there is when we try to define leadership. The group knows leadership is happening and becomes objective and not subjective.

So, from your group’s perspective, how do you know when leadership is happening?