Leadership – it depends on what you mean

starting pointSome of what people write for or against the concept of leadership suffers from the same malady – they assume rather than define the term “leadership.” I read a series of posts between friends of mine this weekend that illustrate the point and prompt me to write my own thoughts.
One group argued that the term leadership is a tired and overused concept that did more damage than good. They contended that efforts to train leaders undermined the necessity of getting things done in an organization. They preferred to train ministers whose character exhibits clear and growing virtues and whose behavior demonstrates the ability to name and address problems and opportunities without being directed to do so. Their argument inferred that “leaders” are little more than prima donnas whose only real aim is the consolidation of power and the exercise of privilege. Not only does their argument hinge on a straw man assumption of a negative view of leadership it fails to define their new term “minister.”

The other group argued that leadership was critical every organization. They contend that the failure to train “leaders” undermines an organization’s innovative drive and diminishes its execution. They prefer to train leaders who are capable of identifying and addressing problems, empowering and mobilizing people around specific goals, developing new capabilities in others, and recognizing new opportunities without being directed to do so. Their argument infers that without developing leaders, positions of power in the organization become dominated by self-serving political hacks whose concern is the consolidation of power and the expansion of privilege.   This too relies on a straw man argument that fails to define terms.

Both sides of the argument get at the same point – prima donnas, power mongers, hubris dominated stuffed shirts, and political hacks undermine morale, diminish employee engagement, and dilute the organization’s ability to perform.

Defining terms is important because of the variety of insights leadership studies seem to generate. One author lamented that there are as many definitions of leadership as there are people writing about it. I suppose this lack of uniformity in nomenclature might suggest a failure to define what leadership is. Or, it may show the situational influence that is part of defining the real work of leadership. Organizations exist in a variety of: development stages, market stages, demographic situations, and cultures. Given the wide number of variables and the required emphasis needed to discuss them effectively the definitions of what leadership looks like will vary.

I have found several definitions of leadership helpful in bringing clarity to discussions like the ones I see my friends engaging. Northouse (2008) attempts a definition of leadership that is often helpful. For him leadership is (a) a process, (b) that involves influence, (c) occurring within a group context, and (d) involving goal attainment.

One of my mentors defines leadership in a church context as: (a) with a God-given capacity and (b) a God-given responsibility to influence (c) a specific group of God’s people (d) toward God’s purposes for the group. (Clinton 1989:20)

The Apostle Paul offered his own word for leadership: προїστάμενς; nom. sing. masc. part. pres. mid. προῒστημι, met., To set over, appoint with authority; to preside, govern, superintend. Includes the idea of protection, care, and attention toward those for whom one is responsible. (Paul—Rom. 12:8)

Anderson at the University of Chicago gives an even broader definition for leadership i.e., the capacity of a human community to shape its future – a collective versus person.

Your organization does need leadership. So, before attempting to reinvent the wheel spend time thinking about how to define the deficiencies you see in human behavior.  A role of power does not equate to a de facto exercise of leadership. In my opinion once we decouple the idea of leadership from the roles or positions an organization uses to describe its coordination and control functions it frees itself to reconsider these functions in a way that leads to more effective behaviors. More importantly taking the time to define your terms will help you avoid the pendulum swings of popular thinking and their inherent waste of resource. Organizations need leadership. Leadership is not the only need an organization faces.