Leadership: A Mythical Concept?

by Rod Bledsoe

Those who learn leadership rise above the many who lead by management.

In 2003, former Medtronic CEO Bill George introduced his book on authentic leadership with the words “Where have all the leaders gone?” Four years later, Lee Iacocca, the former Chrysler chairman, wrote a book titled Where Have All the Leaders Gone? In 2012, Harvard professor Barbara Kellerman wrote a book titled The End of Leadership, in which she questions whether the “leadership industry” has lived up to its claim to grow leaders.

Kellerman argues the leadership industry has not in any major or meaningful way improved the human condition. This could be why Bill George and Lee Iacocca wonder where all the leaders have gone. If two leaders of industry wonder about the existence of relevant leaders, while a leading Harvard professor—the founding executive director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership—questions the effectiveness of the industry to develop leaders, the question needs to be asked. Is leadership actually a mythical concept that gets mostly written about, yet rarely practiced? The answer is both yes and no.

A Thousand Definitions
There exist a thousand books and who knows how many articles written by scholars, CEOs and other public figures on the subject. There are a great many leadership consultants and coaches eager to assist others in becoming a leader. Yet, if you asked your boss or someone around you to define leadership, there’s a fairly high probability that person would fail to give an acceptable answer. The answer would likely be on the order of “I really can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” Here are some common definitions of leadership:

  • Leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less. (John Maxwell)
  • Leadership is not a position. Leadership is the ability to offer service and the willingness to take action. (Phillip Van Hooser)
  • Leadership is a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal. (Peter Northouse)
  • Leadership is an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes and outcomes that reflect their shared purpose. (Richard Daft)
  • Leadership is the art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations. (Kouzes & Posner)
  • Leadership is a function of knowing yourself, having a vision that is well communicated, building trust among colleagues, and taking effective action to realize your own leadership potential. (Warren Bennis)

The list goes on and on. At its root, leadership is about influence, and it expands exponentially from that point. My personal definition: leadership is influence, supported by vision and backed by the passion to inspire others to share that vision. Passion for the vision is an important influential tool leaders use to inspire others to follow them.

Realizing the Vision
In an article entitled “The Seven Principles of Sustainable Leadership,” Andy Hargreaves and Dean Fink say the purpose of leadership, for most leaders, is the desire to accomplish goals that matter, inspire others to join them in working toward those goals, and leave a lasting legacy. We would expect this type of motivating purpose from the CEO or other high-ranking individual in an organization. However, I contend this should be the expectation from the followers of any leader at any level within an organization.

That’s partially why the answer to the question of whether leadership is a mythical concept is both yes and no. Yes, because the CEO, president, or owner of any organization has a vision for success or mission statement to which followers can relate for inspiration. This is influential leadership. The answer is also no, because as the vision cascades throughout an organization, it’s often diluted into obscurity during the normal day-to-day activities that keep the organization viable. It therefore loses the power of its sustainability and positive influence. At that point, the act of leading becomes management.

The problem with our inability to realize the visions of our leaders and act with focus to sustain those visions is this thing called management. Management, as opposed to leadership, indicates a sense of the need to control and “manage” the activities of others, and all the things for which a manager is responsible. Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, refers to management as “command and control.” Yes, there are certain events and organizational functions a manager must control, but when it comes to the employees under a manager’s influence, studies and surveys show they prefer to be engaged in meaningful activity rather than managed. People want to make sense of their work in a way that gives them an active part in influencing its success. Effective leaders use influential leadership to cultivate the spirit of engagement in their followers; they don’t stifle it through command-and-control practices.

Progress in Meaningful Work
Leadership and management are both important, but they are totally different functions, and if one wants to be a good leader, he or she must understand the difference between the two. Management is essentially the impersonal stewardship of resources, including human resources, with an emphasis on how to get things done effectively. Leadership is the act of paying attention to the influential meaning of the actions regarding stewardship of resources by the participants.

A recent New York Times article noted that of all the things that engage people at work, the single most important—by far—is simply making progress in meaningful work. In his book Understanding Leadership, Tom Marshall states that many organizations seek to improve leadership through the use of organizational theory and management technologies. Because of this, leaders receive the message that to lead effectively, one must be a good administrator and use management tools to lead others. Their ability to lead others thus becomes transactional in nature, which supports an organizational culture that defines a manager’s success through metrics. While metrics are important, a successful leader understands that organizational success is mostly accomplished through cooperative, influential relationships that inspire others to perform above and beyond expectations.

How do we develop leaders to lead others by influencing rather than controlling their activities? How do we develop managers to support the organizational vision through relationships that inspire (leadership) instead of relationships that control (management)? How do we develop leaders with followers that want to engage with them rather than have to engage with them?

We must first educate potential and experienced leaders on the difference between leadership and management. People instinctively seek to manage their environment to maintain control. For that reason, management becomes a natural survival tool to someone in a leadership position. To lead requires years of dedicated personal growth and self-study that allows one to enable rather than control. It cannot be developed through a promotion or by attending a three-day seminar. The art of leadership requires a higher degree of personal awareness and commitment because it is a discipline that must be learned. Those who learn leadership rise above the many who lead by management. iBi

Rod Bledsoe is retired from Caterpillar Inc. He has a bachelor's degree in management and a master's degree in leadership. He can be reached at steponeleadership@yahoo.com.

 


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