There are literally thousands of books, articles and blogs dedicated to the subject of leadership. It is possibly the most talked about topic in business today – and still the question is asked – What is leadership?
It should be quite simple really; surely it is such an instinctive action that we should be able to define it clearly, simply and accurately? And yet ….
If you watch any group of children at play it will eventually emerge that there will be one child to whom all others naturally turn to make the decisions. Without a formal election they have elected him or her as their leader for that game. The next game may have a different leader – but it will be inevitable that there will always be a leader to organise, detail and decree. It’s instinctive you see.
Again, think about meetings for what ever purpose they are called – without the direction of an elected leader the members will always appoint one anyway. And without any leader, either formal or informally appointed, the meeting will disintegrate into shambles.
So whatever they are, they appear to be a necessary requirement when two or three gather together to achieve something.
So what is it that instinctively requires us to look for a leader, and what is it that a leader has that we recognise?
History – which has a somewhat skewed view, is a litany of the deeds of great men (and far less women) – so are our natural leaders that ‘great man’ as we thought in the 1900’s? Are there some that are born to lead, to whom it comes naturally?
Given the opportunity are there always going to be those whose innate ability will shine through? It used to be thought so.
Of course, our playground analogy, and we all recognise it, also has a part to play in the development of what leadership is – in the 1920’s we were all excited about the ‘group theory’ (Well those of us who were around then and I am afraid I was not!). This theory of leadership examined the phenomenon of instinctive leadership appointment, and we thought we had got it explained.
That was until the 1930’s when it appeared that leadership was all about natural traits – successful leaders demonstrated ‘specific traits’, and if you could show that you possessed these magical ‘traits’ you were a shoo in for a leader.
Then came the Second World War – and it soon became blindingly clear that some outstanding leaders actually ticked none of the theory boxes, and so we all got excited in the 1950’s and 60’s about the fact that leadership was more about ‘Key Behavioural patterns’ – if you knew what behaviour exemplified the great leaders and if you were able to duplicate that – then, here comes leadership success.
Only it didn’t translate into actual practical achievement very often.
In fact, some researchers, such as Jeffrey Pfeffer* in the 1970’s decided that leadership is irrelevant to most organisations – having no way to actually pin down the concepts of leadership let us now decide we don’t need it after all, and we can all forget about the problem because it is ‘irrelevant’.
And in 2003 not only were leaders deemed to be irrelevant they were also dismissed as being ineffective. ‘The Complexity Theory’ dictates that leaders are unable to alter a complex system such as a corporate organisation – so, apparently, as well as being irrelevant they are also unnecessary.
Only of course we all know that is not the case!
I only have to turn and look at some of the books on my bookshelf to read at least half a dozen books on how charismatic leadership has changed the fortunes of failing companies. And I also have equally opportunity to read how poor leadership has ruined previously strong organisations.
Just because we cannot put our finger on precisely what leadership is does not mean that it should be dismissed.
Leadership is shown by people, not by theorists; and for every great leader showing us what leadership is, we can find equally great leaders showing us that it is something entirely different.
Whatever it is – we need it now more than ever. As John Kotter reiterated in his book “What Leaders Really Do*” business is still being over-managed and under-led – and perhaps that is because we have not yet found a sure fire way of teaching leadership skills.
And that is the question of Leadership – not do we need it, not what it is – but how can we improve it.
Michele @ Trischel
*Pfeffer J. 1977, ‘The ambiguity of leadership’, Academy of Management Review. April, pp 104-12
*Kotter J.1999, ‘John Kotter on what leaders really do’, A Harvard Business Review Book, p18