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Leadership Hodgepodge

“Leadership can be thought of as a capacity to define oneself to others in a way that clarifies and expands a vision of the future.” — Edwin H. Friedman

Friedman’s definition of leadership is fairly typical of those one finds in the literature. As one reads more generally about leadership and leaders, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that those who think about these sorts of things are pretty much blowing in the wind. Well, perhaps one should only speak for himself. Maybe the other folks are totally grounded and on the right track, but that’s doubtful.

The problem is that most writers keep trying to understand leadership and leaders by looking at presumed leaders and then struggling to figure out what distinguishes them and their behavior from everyone else. The result is a hodgepodge of ideas and concepts that numbs the mind.

If one spends some time examining the characteristics and behavior that various experts say differentiate leaders from the rest of the folks, the most common element seems to be membership in one of four groups; CEO of a large corporation, the head of a government such as the President, the head coach of a college or professional sports team, or a high ranking member of the military . Go figure.

Next, membership in the groups is limited to association with winning enterprises. If you are a CEO, your corporation has to have made a lot of money. If you are the Head of State, your government should not have lost a war or screwed up the economy too badly. The Head Coach needs a winning record and probably needs to have won at least one championship. Of course, the military guru needs to have been the victor.

If you fit into one of the groups, and few do, you are nearly assured of being designated as a leader and thus have whatever it takes in the leadership department. As best one can tell, most any trait or characteristic that you have in common with a majority of other people in the leader groups is fodder for the experts on leadership. There are well over a hundred characteristics and behaviors associated with leaders and leadership. Had you organized the list and went through a careful pick-and-choose process, you likely could have easily come up with yet another theory of leadership and shared that with everyone.

It does seem that charisma is a particularly leader-like characteristic, although the jury is still out about whether it is actually necessary. The problem seems to be that there is serious uncertainty about what it is, who has it, and if it is a real leadership factor or just a personal quality shared by a few people, leaders and non-leaders alike. There is general agreement, though, that if you have charisma or have a way to get some, get and keep all you can. It’s good stuff to have.

There is a lot written about lesser leaders, particularly within large organizations. They are not big time leaders but are sort of junior leaders or leaders-in-training. They are to be found on teams and within divisions of the larger organization. It’s sort of like being in the leadership minor leagues. There is not much likelihood that you can or will move up to the big league but you can work hard and can always hope.

Wonder if “leadership” is actually a spurious concept? Everyone knows a few extremely talented people who are unusually successful at what they do. If you were to identify a hundred or a thousand such super stars, you could then remove everyone whose activity and success are individual and unrelated to directing or guiding the work of others. An artist or other similar individual would be an example. Those left are highly talented, very successful, and associated with others whose success is attributed, in part, to the person directing or guiding the work. You would have a group of extraordinarily talented and successful people who direct or guide the work of others in some type of collective endeavor.

There are, then, the individual activity super stars and the collective activity super stars. The latter group have been designated as leaders merely because they are very talented and successful with in the context of a collective activity including directing and guiding others.

What is a leader? Anyone who is unusually talented and successful within the context of a collective activity where they, among other things, direct and guide others. If you want to study leadership, then, figure out why some people are more talented than others and why some people are more successful than others.

The truth may be that “leadership” is but a myth perpetuated over time and accepted without any clear evidence that it really exists as a separate and distinguishable phenomenon. Maybe what passes as leadership is nothing more or less than serious talent combined with luck and circumstance. Talent at what? That depends on what the enterprise is and what skills are most useful and valued in that arena; but if you want to be a leader you must first do what you can and need to do to become especially talented. If you reach that goal, also take care to have a good measure of luck and find yourself in the right circumstance. You too can then become a leader, especially if you also happen to have a good share of charisma.

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