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Definitions of leadership

Caroline Stockmann explains different definitions of leadership in this article. Join the course to learn more!
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Definitions of leadership

In this article we’re going to look at others’ views of leadership – having looked already at what our students say, as well as what established organisations such as the CIPD and McKinsey have had to say on the topic.

Tony Robbins, well known for his inspirational books such as ‘Good to Great’ and ‘Awaken the Giant Within’, says on his website: “Leadership is the ability to inspire a team to achieve a certain goal. It’s usually discussed in the context of business, but leadership is also how you, as an individual, choose to lead your life. The definition of leadership is to influence, inspire and help others become their best selves, building their skills and achieving goals along the way. You don’t have to be a CEO, manager or even a team lead to be a leader. Leadership is a set of skills – and a certain psychology – that anyone can master.”

He goes on to say it’s not a zero-sum game either – i.e. leaders empower others so they create more leaders, and they strengthen others’ leadership rather than diminish it.

Peter Drucker, who wrote many articles and books on management practice, said “Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes.”

We see here there are different views on leadership in terms of whether, as we heard in the last video and according to Tony Robbins, it is about behaviours, or as per Peter Drucker it’s about results. I think it has to be both. To achieve results but have behaviours which are not synonymous with leadership is probably either luck or short-term, and to exhibit leadership qualities but not achieve results misses the point. However I would say that exhibiting the right leadership qualities for the right time will tend to get great results.

Let’s take an example where this might not prove to be true though. Imagine a scenario, where someone is authentic, has great integrity, is strategic and a great listener and communicator. However they get a role in an organisation which fundamentally has different values from their own. In this kind of scenario, their usual qualities might be compromised for a start (they don’t feel authentic as in their subconscious, at least, they know it’s the wrong company for them), or the pressures from others might be holding them back from being their real ‘selves. This is a question which came up with a student on the last course (thank you!). I would always say, trust yourself and always be authentic, as it shows anyway if you’re not. But also recognise that it may mean at times you find yourself in the wrong environment, and the only solution will be to leave.

At the end of the day, it often comes down to judgment: am I influential enough in this particular culture, hopefully with the support of like-minded others, to make the change(s) needed to deliver the right strategy and results for the organisation?

If we turn to some other thoughts on leadership, Bill George, Professor at Harvard Business School, said “Successful leadership is leading with the heart, not just the head. They [sic] possess qualities like empathy, compassion, and courage.” So this is another vote for qualities, but importantly courage is mentioned. To be a great leader demands courage indeed, as sometimes you will have to go against the flow, which is something many of us find challenging. Understanding when you need to do this is the key, and when you bring together the ideas and tools presented in this course, and practice them, that understanding will come both more readily, but also with the skills to bring others with you.

Julia Ciulla, a philosopher and leadership ethics specialist, said “Leadership is not a person or a position. It is a complex moral relationship between people, based on trust, obligation, commitment, emotion, and a shared vision of the good.” There are some crucial words and concepts here. Ciulla emphasises the point that leadership involves more than one person, it’s complex, and it often can revolve around a shared vision of the good. As we discussed in course one, you can have a leader who is not good, possibly even evil, and that would not fit into the definitions we generally have of leaders today. The ‘good’ is an aspect we assume is mandatory.

Here we also can get into the philosophical debate as to what is good and what is bad, which brings us back to the point that there is no one definition of leadership, although there are a lot of common views, and leadership preferences will be personal to the individual and often subject to cultural norms. They also will vary dependent on the situation – e.g. a leader for stable times may not be the one for times of change or crisis, and vice versa. There are many examples for instance of leaders who are great at change, but cause chaos when things are running smoothly. A change of circumstances is often a trigger for change of leader.

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