Confusing leadership


Photo by db*photography

Earlier this week I had a job interview and one of the first questions I was asked was: “what do you think leadership is?”. Those of you who have been following my blog must be smiling, as you know this is a subject I write about a lot and feel comfortable talking about. So, although I did not get the job, I do feel that my answer to that question was very good: “leadership is about dealing with the future”.

I mentioned a number of times in this blog that I get frustrated by the fact that people confuse leadership with management. Though some people need to do both jobs, they are in fact very different jobs. Management is about the now. It is about helping the people around you excel. It is about support and making sure things happen. With leadership, the main thing is about dissipating fear of uncertainty and fear of change.  

Today I was reading this interesting post in Harvard Business Review Blog called “Decoding Leaders“. In it, the author Norm Smallwood, starts well by describing the inflation of leadership theories, books and names:

On Amazon, there are 480,881 books today that have to do with leaders as the topic. If you ask 30 leadership development experts to define leadership, you get 31 different answers. No wonder we’re confused.

So, how did they go and try to solve the confusion. By interviewing:

“…recognized experts in the field who had already spent years sifting through the evidence and asked two simple but elusive questions:

1. What percentage of effective leadership traits are basically the same?

2. If there are common rules that all leaders must master, what are they?”.

After all that, They came up with five rules to decode leadership.

I have a lot of respect for all of these experts that spend their lives dealing with leadership. But I don’t understand how a solution to the problem can be achieved by averaging the thoughts of many people, be their expertise as they may be. Can we really have an average of ideas? Could it be that the answer to what leadership lies in some kind of popularity contest? I find that hard to believe.

I think that first we need to decide what the big goal is. Then, we can start dispensing rules.

Why, just a few posts before, on the same blog, a post named “Humility as a leadership trait” can be found. This is off course a trait that could not be found on the five rules list. Not that I think humility is not important or should not be advocated. On the contrary. A little more humility could do great things for the world. But I am not sure this is a required trait for leadership. Actually, I think it is important for managers, whose main work is working with others and resisting the temptation of giving answers. And how do the authors think humility should be achieved. Here is one example:

Look to promote others. Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman note in their seminal text, First, Break All the Rules, that a characteristic of successful managers is their ability to promote others, sometimes to positions higher than their own. Such managers are talent groomers, they are ones upon whose leadership success of the enterprise rests.

Is it only me? Wait – leaders? Managers? Future leaders? Grooming talent?

Are you confused? I know I am.

In the atmosphere of humility I must admit that I might be wrong. Maybe leadership is not about the future. But trying to solve the confusion by making an average of ideas will not help solve the confusion. Albert Einstein famously said: “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler”. Let’s try to find a simpler definition for leadership.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: