We all know that leadership is very important in our lives and society. We know that we need good leadership in our government, business, non-profits, education, spirituality and families to be successful in these areas. We know that leadership is important because, each year, we spend billions of dollars and millions of hours trying to improve our leadership.
At the same time, we have failed to come to a shared, commonly accepted understanding of leadership that we need to study, discuss, analyze and improve leadership in a systematic way. We don’t have the common understanding of leadership required to make real progress in leadership studies and development.
Over the last 100 years, we can point to real progress in many human endeavors like aviation, automobiles or any of the sciences—like physics. Over the last century, aircraft and automobiles have dramatically improved in their design, efficiency, speed and safety. We can look at physics over the last 100 years and see dramatic increases and real progress in our knowledge and application of physics.
But the same is not true of leadership studies. Over the last century, a wide variety of leadership theories, definitions and approaches have been proposed, but none truly widely accepted. That is an indication that our study of leadership is not well-founded.
In some cases, definitions of leadership are proposed which contain really good insights, but are so limited or specific that they fail to capture leadership in a broader context. For instance, Joseph Rost, in his book Leadership for the 21st Century, gives leadership a post-industrial definition as “an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes.” The great thing about this definition is that captures some difference between how leadership might have been understood in an industrial time (i.e 1820-1950) and how it can be understood in a post-industrial time (today). Others, like Buchard, Burns and Greenleaf might change that parts of that definition in several ways. For instance, they might change “leaders and followers” to “collaborators”. Burchard actually argues that an activity is not leadership if it is not servant or transformational leadership.
And that brings up a question: If leadership only occurs when it is “an influence relationship”, or servant or transformational leadership, is that also saying that Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, George Patton and Napoleon were not leaders? While I think they were profoundly evil, does this mean that Stalin, Mao-Tse Tung and Saddam Hussein were not leaders?
Perhaps giving leadership such a narrow definition helps us better understand and capture trends in contemporary leadership, but it fails to capture a very important, broader historical understanding of leadership. Asserting such a narrow definition of leadership might be like saying that the definition of automobile must include power steering and air bags. Well what about all those vehicles built between 1900 and 1985 that didn’t have those features? Are they really not automobiles?
In the same way, our definition of leadership should be broad enough to capture leadership as a whole, throughout history. The broader definition will give us the opportunity to capture, use and learn from leadership insights and practices from earlier times, even if they might be outmoded compared to 21st century American business leadership theory.
For our definition of leadership will reveal how we perceive leadership, society, human nature, the nature of human relationships, and the nature of goals. Indeed, it goes the other way too: Our understanding of leadership will depend on our understanding of human nature, human relationships and goals. Change our understanding of any of these things, and our understanding of leadership will change with it. If our definition of leadership only includes our contemporary American understanding of human nature, and the nature of human relationships and goals, then we will lose any leadership lessons from earlier time periods when they understood these things differently.
For instance, if our understanding of leadership is too narrow, we will not learn the good and bad from those who have, historically, been understood as leaders: Ghengis Khan, Attila, the Duke of Wellington. These men were very effective at getting others to follow them and in accomplishing the mission, but they could also be quite brutal with those followers who failed to perform. Followers were not seen as collaborators. There was an influence relationship insofar as those who failed to perform (i.e. showed cowardice in combat) were often executed. Because there were distinct leaders and followers, and they weren’t very transformational or servant-oriented in their approach, does this mean they weren’t leaders at all? Of course not.
Our best bet is to keep our definition of leadership simple, easy, and fundamental, and leave it open to distinguish different types and time periods of leadership within the broader definition. That way we can maximize our learning about leadership, and not inadvertently cut ourselves off from important perspectives because we took too narrow an approach.
With that in mind, the definition of leadership is very simple: One providing guidance to another.
More on what that means in practice in another post…