What is leadership?

There is so much talk about Leadership these days. Is it my imagination, or is there far more focus on it? In the wake of some spectacular business crashes; and in the Information Age we’ve heard about them, dissected them, and laid blame…., we keep trying to figure out what makes a good leader.

I also found it amusing that when consulting Wikipedia for a definition of Leadership, I encountered a message “This article has multiple issues”. So it seems that even Wikipedia can’t elicit a sensible definition! So since Wikipedia could not help me, I accessed Books24X7.com and found a definition “The leader is characterized by a strong drive for responsibility and task completion, vigor and persistence in pursuit of goals, venturesomeness and originality in problem solving, and a drive to exercise initiative in social situations. He possesses self-confidence and a strong sense of personal identity; a willingness to accept the consequences of decision and actions, a readiness to absorb interpersonal stress, a willingness to tolerate frustration and delay, an ability to influence other people’s behaviour, and a capacity to structure social interaction systems to the purpose at hand. (Stogdill, 1948)”. Pretty old, but I think it still has value.

Courses on Management tell us that Management includes four processes: Planning; Leading; Organizing; Controlling. So is Leadership just one of these processes? And can Leadership skills be taught or are they character traits and qualities you either do or don’t have. Maybe some people live their lives never demonstrating their leadership ability, but in my humble opinion Leaders will always find themselves in leadership positions, whether it’s in corporate, sport, charity work, or politics.

A clever man once suggested to me that only 30% of people are capable of Leadership – the rest have to be told what to do to some extent. I’m sure that there are many who will argue this – and as I have no empirical evidence to back it up I am on shaky ground – but it would account for why there are so few examples of exceptional Leadership.

I have been blessed with working with some outstanding leaders, and am fortunate enough to have lived in South Africa when Nelson Mandela was President; a great statesman and leader who is still an example to the entire world. Sadly, I have also observed some very poor leaders in action.

Apart from the professional qualities and competencies one would expect a leader to have, I think good leaders:

  • Trust themselves. It is very difficult to trust others if you don’t trust yourself.
  • Are wise, not just intelligent.
  • Are confident and competent.
  • Lead change, but are not “changelings”. I can tell you from experience that there is nothing more stressful than working for “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”.
  • Have values, ethics and are honest in every way.
  • Have good memories.
  • Have the ability to tell stories.
  • Are empathetic and compassionate.
  • Do not think they are invincible. I have no doubt that Hitler started off as an exceptional leader, but once he succumbed to  megalomania he set a path for both his own and his country’s destruction.
  • Accept responsibility. I listen to leaders in all walks of life playing the blame game, and wonder what happened to the concept of “the buck stops here”.
  • Are humble, but never self-effacing.
  • Are the same person publicly and privately.
  • Are lifelong learners, always striving for improvement.

Can these qualities and traits be taught? I’m not sure, but leaders can be made aware of these, and then dig deep within themselves to adapt their behavior accordingly.  A coaching intervention, coupled with a self-directed learning program can do this.

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One thought on “What is leadership?

  1. A good leader should own many qualities, but some of them are: honesty, capacity of learning new things over and over again, responsibility, to be an open-minded person, charismatic and with a positive attitude.
    Personally, I’ve also followed a Toronto team building course, where I’ve learned about this subject.

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