What Is Leadership? The Answer Is Not So Easy To Nail Down

Much has been and continues to be written about being a great leader. Yet, for all the consideration and discourse surrounding this topic, it’s surprisingly difficult to nail down an answer to the question at the heart of it all: what is leadership?

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What is leadership?

When considering a definition of leadership, a range of other terms come to the fore: followers, influence, power, etc.

At first glance leadership appears to be centered around a relationship between the “leader” (who, it is presupposed, possesses and wields “leadership”) and their followers, who are manipulated (ideally with benevolence) through influence and power to lend their energy and effort toward the accomplishment of some goal. Leadership in this case, then, can be conceptualized as the ability to align others in the pursuit of a common objective.

What Is Leadership? The Answer Is Not So Easy To Nail Down

This seems like a nice and tidy answer to the question “what is leadership?”… until you consider instances in which teams are achieving alignment and reaching common goals in the absence of a clear leader.

Writing in Leadership In Action, Wilfred Drath posits that leadership is best considered from the perspective of outcomes. He sees leadership as a process rather than some individual trait or tool, meaning leadership can be collaborative rather than dictatorial. What is leadership in this instance, then? Drath suggests that where direction, alignment and commitment (DAC) are produced, leadership as a process has been followed.

Drath illustrates this idea with a familiar scenario: a group of friends discussing what to do with their evening. Ideas are suggested by various members of the group and other members agree or disagree with those suggestions. Compromises are made as everybody’s moods and preferences are taken into account and, even if the plan changes on the fly and progresses along with the evening, a consensus is ultimately reached that looks different than it would have if one friend stood up and tried to exert influence and power to steer the group toward their own idea for the evening.

Leadership is not management

An alternative approach to answering the question “what is leadership?” is to first consider what leadership is not. One such distinction is between management and leadership. Managers can, of course, possess and exercise leadership, but leadership is not required for management. Likewise, leadership does not require or involve management.

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It’s easy and understandable to confuse the two terms and concepts, but The Wall Street Journal Guide To Management makes the distinction quite clear with a list of comparisons. This selection from that list illustrates the differences quite succinctly:

  • Managers maintain while leaders develop.
  • Managers ask “how?” and “when?” while leaders ask “what?” and “why?”
  • Managers accept the status quo while leaders challenge it.
  • Managers do things right while leaders do the right thing.

If this concept of managers existing only to carry out orders strikes you as bleak, that’s probably because this black and white view is rarely reflective of reality. The best managers, of course, are often great leaders within their managerial capacity and end up landing somewhere in the middle of the two opposite poles suggested by these comparisons.

Were it not for the limitations of structure and authority, many of these managers would shift to the “leader” side of that spectrum.

The struggle between power and resistance

The concept of authority brings the discussion of “what is leadership?” back around to power as it relates to the first of five major forms that power can take.

Legitimate power is the possession of authority within the organization. A manager, for instance, has legitimate power within the realm of his duties and responsibilities by the very virtue of being a manager. The organizational expectation is that subordinates to a position of legitimate power will follow the orders of their leader. But, as we’ve seen, merely being a manager does not automatically make you a leader.

Reward power is enjoyed by those who are able to offer and deliver desired incentives in exchange for compliance. It is best understood as a form of transactional leadership and can be conceptualized as “pulling rather than pushing”. Think of the carrot and the stick.

Now think of only the stick and you’re onto coercive power, the reverse side of the same coin. A person with coercive power has the capability of punishing subordinates for real or perceived infractions and their power is derived from fear of encountering their wrath. You’re familiar with this if you’ve had a manager who uses phrases like “we need to make an example out of her”.

What Is Leadership? The Answer Is Not So Easy To Nail Down

These first three forms of power are usually supported by the organization itself and are unlikely to effect you outside of the organizational context. Which is to say: your manager might have the power to dictate what time you take your lunch break but if they attempted to call you at home and tell you what time to eat dinner you would likely have a few choice words for them.

Power can also be generated by the individual. Referent power is achieved by those people who you would most like to have a beer with. They rolled with the cool kids in high school (probably because they didn’t say things like “rolled with the cool kids”) and if you had the same birthday as them, everybody would go to their party instead of yours (sorry, dude). Their power over others is derived from their ability to control access to a valuable resource: themselves.

Expert power is likewise individual and relates to the breadth and depth of knowledge the power-holder has about something that you would like to know more about. Academics, researchers, and critics enjoy expert power within certain fields but hobbyists can ascend to this level, as well. If you are trying to decide between buying an Xbox or a Playstation, for example, you’ll likely seek out the opinions of video game bloggers who know more about both systems than you would ever have the time to learn independently. You defer to their expert opinion and thereby grant them the power to influence your actions.

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All five sources of power rely heavily upon context. You wouldn’t vote for a video game blogger in a presidential election, nor would you seriously consider Obama’s thoughts on the merits of the Playstation 4 (or maybe you would, because Obama is rad). A science teacher would likely be less impressive if forced to teach a literature class and – as we’ve said – your manager at work doesn’t command much respect outside of the office.

Yet the most fortunate among you will have come in contact with people whose influence transcends the context in which you first encountered them. Professors who made you want to be a better husband or wife, managers who were able to help you lead a healthier lifestyle within and without your office life, or presidents who inspired you to buy a Playstation 4 (we didn’t mean to suggest that this is impossible).

Can the answer to our question of “what is leadership?” not be found in these examples?


Leadership is not about you

Think back to our hypothetical group of friends deciding what to do with their evening.

We’ve said that there is no legitimate power in play here; that no one friend is “in charge” of the evening. Expert power may be exercised by the foodie friend who suggests a restaurant but conflict may be created when a friend with referent power over some members of the group suggests a different place. Compromise might be enforced by a friend with coercive power (we all have a friend with a short fuse) and ultimately settled with reward power (buy one get free vouchers are a great way to make friends!).

What Is Leadership? The Answer Is Not So Easy To Nail Down

The different forms of power, then, bounce off one another but all in the name of reaching a common goal: consensus on where to eat dinner. Even in the absence of an appointed “leader” or any formal management structure it is easy to see that direction, alignment, and commitment have been produced and in this interplay of power types we can make an important observation: that leadership is not about any one person – it is about the common good.

Those transcendental figures who influence us outside of their contextual power know this best. A manager who inspires you to make healthier choices within and without the office is able to influence you in this way because they were thinking of you and not themselves; your own wellbeing and not the company’s bottom line. If their interest is the common good, they know that your wellbeing is an important factor of that common good.

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So: what is leadership?

Based on our examination today, leadership can be defined as the employment of power to achieve direction, alignment and commitment toward a common goal with the aim of maximizing satisfaction among all stakeholders.

See, that wasn’t so hard!

Now: who else needs a nap?

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