One (Last) Time: What is Leadership?

by Dr. Aaron Buchko
Bradley University

What are the traits, qualities and behaviors that make successful leaders?

It’s that time again. We’re in an election year, and once more, our nation trots out the quadrennial discussion of the need for leadership. Pundits opine about the lack of effective leadership. The voices on talk radio lament of the need for strong leadership. Everyone’s talking about it, so it seems. But what are they talking about? Ever notice how everyone talks about leadership, but no one wants to say exactly what they mean by leadership?

A quick search of Amazon.com indicates more than 90,240 books available with the word “leadership” in the title, and 65,893 with the word “leader” or “leaders.” That’s a lot of words written on a topic that, quite frankly, isn’t well-defined. Read the books — and I’ve read many. How do they define leadership? “Influencing others to attain goals”… “Creating vision, inspiring commitment and directing resources to attain organization goals”… “Someone in a position of authority over others.”

Do any of these define true leadership? I doubt it.

One of our difficulties is that the word “leader” or “leadership” has been applied to so many different areas of activity that it has become meaningless. We have political leaders, military leaders, business leaders, market leaders, sports leaders, personal leaders, industry leaders, school leaders, gang leaders, thought leaders, etc., etc., etc. The concept has become so overused that we’ve lost a true understanding of leadership — and why it is important.

Let’s step back a minute and ask a simple question. Think of someone who has been a true leader in your life. It doesn’t matter who they are, or what walk of life: a parent, teacher, religious figure, military commander, coach, relative or some other individual. Who came to mind? Can you see this person, recall what they did, and explain why you identified them as a leader?

If so, you know what leadership is — and it’s not necessarily what’s been written about in the books. Actually, leadership is an old concept, and a fairly straightforward one that we all understand, because each of us has been affected by a leader in our lives. But before I tell you what leadership is, let’s be clear about what leadership is not.

Leadership is NOT managing. Managers produce results through people. They get things done by directing the efforts of others. But that’s not leadership.

Leadership is NOT supervision. Supervisors oversee the work of others to make sure that people are doing what they are supposed to be doing. But that’s not leadership.

Leadership is NOT execution. Executives are those who execute the plans of others. Executives make sure that strategies are carried out. But that’s not leadership.

Leadership is NOT administration. Administrators make sure that the routine activities of an organization are carried out. But that’s not leadership.

Leadership is NOT influence. Influence is the capacity to act as a force on the actions, ideas, behaviors or opinions of others. But that’s not what we mean by leadership, because influence can be resisted. So what is leadership? What was it that caused you to identify a particular person as a leader in your life? The answer is this: Leadership is the act of moving people and/or organizations in new directions that they would not otherwise go.

Leaders create irreversible change — in people, in organizations, in societies, in nations. The reason you selected the person you chose as a leader is because he or she changed you. That leader made you think in a whole new way as you never had before. That leader got you to adopt whole new ways of acting. That leader changed your opinions: about the world, about life, about sports, music, education, politics, economics or any other aspect of human experience. And you’ve never been able to return to the way you were before he or she exercised that leadership in your life.

That, I submit, is real leadership. We’ve all seen it or lived through it. We understand it when it’s happened to us. But there are more than 150,000 books allegedly on the subject of leadership, attempting to identify the traits, qualities or behaviors that will make successful leaders. Guess what? There are no common sets of individual traits, qualities or behaviors that will predict success in a leadership role. Research has never been able to find universal characteristics that predict success as a leader.

Look at this year’s list of 40 Leaders Under Forty. You’ll see people from all walks of life, as diverse and varied in their backgrounds, experience and qualities as any group of 40 people might be. But there’s one thing they have in common: They’ve created change in their organizations, communities, cities, states, or nations. That’s leadership.

You want to know what leaders do? Leaders move people away from old ideas and ways of behaving, and get them to attach to new thoughts and ways of acting. They get us to see things in whole new ways — ways that we eventually come to value and internalize as our own. They change who we are as people, and we never want to go back to the way we were before.

That’s what the people in this issue of iBi have done. They deserve to be recognized for their efforts and celebrated for the value they bring to our community. They make us better. They move us into the future by getting us to give up our old habits and ideas and accept new ones. In the process, they make central Illinois a better place to live, work and raise a family. So here’s to this year’s class of leaders. You may not find them in any of the books on leadership, but they all understand what it means to be a real leader. For that, let’s thank them for sharing their leadership with us. iBi

Dr. Aaron Buchko is professor of management in the Foster College of Business at Bradley University.

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