There is an old Irish blessing, which goes “May you live in interesting times” – and these days most of us can say we have been blessed!

These are indeed interesting times for many organisations: some are re-defining their operations, some are struggling to recast their methods, and others are just plain going broke. With the bankruptcy of GM in the USA, the realisation that something has gone wrong is beginning to dawn on even the most optimistic.

More and more voices are being heard – in the media; in politics and now in society – voices which are asking “What are our leaders doing to get us out of this mess?”

While Trischel primarily train communicators, we are being asked more and more during that training about qualities of leaders. There seems a real interest in corporate Australia to define the role of a Leader. During breaks in training, I often find myself in deep and meaningful discussions about what leadership is, what leadership isn’t, and how is can be defined in the twenty first century.

Let’s face it, there are hundreds of books which talk about Leadership; and there are some iconic writers who have laid out definitive ideas of what Leadership should look like, such as John Kotter, in What leaders Really Do (1999); the guru of Leadership and Change.

In addition, we’ve had Locke with The Essence of Leadership (1991); the Kuczmarski’s, Susan and Tom, discussing the Values-Based Leadership (1995): David Rock introduced us to Quiet Leadership (2006): and Eva Cox evaluated the problems faced by Leading Women (1996).

But my point is that Leadership, despite the tomes that have been written about it, is still a difficult attribute to pin down. Often our assessment about demonstrated leadership depends on the position or the career path. For instance – we have leadership forums chaired by Fred Smith or Joe Bloggs, because the are the Chairman of this company; or CEO of that one. Or someone grabs me in the break and pinning me against the wall, gushes “You’ve spent a long time in the military – tell me about(breathless pause) Leadership!”.

The truth is that position or career does not automatically create a Leader. It allows people to fill a position of power, or imbues them with an air of authority – but neither of these automatically produces that special something that we instinctively recognise as being ‘leadership’.

Is it something that a few of us are born with, or is it something that can be nurtured? Is Leadership a skill which can be taught or must it be the province of those chosen few who seem intuitively to understand it?

These are questions that have been asked for centuries, Plato and Aristotle posed similar questions, and I dare say they will still be debated in the future. I think it is because the quality of Leadership is so ephemeral that it is really difficult to pin down. We may not be able to articulate what it is exactly, but we recognise it when we see it.

The difficulty comes when we consider what Leaders are supposed to look like. Kotter’s book laid down some basic ideas that leadership consists of action. And of course, it does. The leader who occupies the position but does nothing is merely a figure head. So leadership must be about what you do.

But then so is Management – so is Leadership a different kind of management then?

In the Essence of Leadership Locke talks about the four keys of successful leaders – Knowledge, Skills, Ability and Vision. These are, with core motive and traits, still being taught as being at the base of all leadership – and rightly so, because a real leader must demonstrate these key factors or fail.

But if I have the knowledge and the Skills, if my ability is recognised and am able to articulate my vision – will I be recognised as having that indefinable quality that those I lead will recognise and trust? Should there be something more?

Susan and Thomas Kuczmarski thought so. In Values-Based Leadership they told us that “…employees need values they can believe in. Without a reason to believe in the values and mission of an organization [sic] profits and productivity will decline”

That a leader should demonstrate that they have principles and are ethical is so obvious, that I wonder why we had to have it spelled out for us. So, in addition to my actions, and the four key points, as a leader I am also required to communicate my personal values to those I lead so that they are motivated and inspired.

I cannot fault any of the attributes discussed above – I agree; they are all necessary, and in my time as a Senior NCO in the army I learned and implemented each and everyone of them. Just as every other person who went through the various leadership courses did. As everyone of our industry leaders must have done, on their path to the senior positions.

But not everyone who went through the military leadership courses and who received the promotion demonstrated that special quality of leadership that is recognised by the soldier. Soldiers follow because they must. The system dictates it. But there is a great difference between following a leader because he holds the position, and following a leader because you believe and trust in them.

So the question of leadership, for me, is still open for discussion. Especially as my answer to the populous question of “What are our leaders doing to get us out of this mess” is usually to ask “What were the leaders doing to get us into it in the first place?”

So are we still confused about Leadership? What are your thoughts.

Michele @ Trischel

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