The L Word

That would be “Leadership.” I’ve been given a definition of leadershipthat I’d like to discuss with you and ask your opinion about.

The question that was posed to me was, “What is a leader?”

I gave what I thought was a pretty good response – about having a vision, bringing people along in the direction needed to support the vision, and instilling accountability as a management philosophy.

But, I was told that I was wrong. A leader, I was told, is one who has followers.

So, if followers are appointed or assigned, a person is a leader? I asked.

Just so, I was told. And if you don’t have followers, then you aren’t a leader.

Now, this caused me some ego anxiety, particularly as I am currently self-employed and don’t have any assigned followers at the moment. (Although I’ve had plenty in thepast.) So, I used to be a leader but now I’m not, but I might be again in the future?

I did a little research on this concept and it turns out that there is a saying, There is one irrefutable definition of a leader, and that is someone people follow. However, I’ve seen that attributed to Drucker (seems like he should know what he’s talking about), but also to Michael Maccoby (management consultant and author, unfamiliar to me).

It occurred to me that maybe “leadership” is a term like “quality.” You can have good quality, or poor quality. When we say that we have a quality process, however, we’re implying that we have a high-quality process. (I hope.) So, for the term”leadership,” maybe we’re implying “positive leadership.” And, going back to the statement that a leader is someone who has followers, I see that it’s a neutral type of definition. Cult leaders, presidents of countries, Ghandi, front-line supervisors, Hitler – all of them leaders by that definition.

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So, maybe I need to be a little more specific when talking about (and answering questions about) leadership. If anyone has operational definitions or comments that they’d like to share, I’d love to continue my education on this topic!

Comments 11

  1. michael cardus

    When presenting to college groups we follow the credo of leadership being a philosophy and not a title. This holds when you are attempting to illustrate to people who are not in leadership positions to think about EI leadership and the philosophy of leadership.

    Although as you mentioned when with corporate groups the idea of followers comes into play. For followers in leadership you do have them. The audience you are speaking to is followers for the time being. The people you consult are followers while at the same time you are a follower of their leadership. This idea of followers for leadership is edymological true – although it does not give full justice to the leadership you are speaking of.

  2. Henry Killackey

    Being a leader is about influencing others. Leaders typically make those around him or her better at the jobs they do (hence, they are able to coach people). Leaders also have a strong tendency to take initiative and use action as the catalyst (and some would also add enthusiasm) for influencing others.

  3. Banu

    I have not Phd degree about “Leadership Management and Communication” but I have 12 years experience on team management, really large teams. I know that, team management and leadership are hugely different. You should go to route cause of the “followers behaviour” which I strongly discuss with my bosses. There are few words need to be discuss;
    Manager: Who has a team or followers assigned by higher authority.
    Supervisor: Who has followers assigned or voluntarily attend
    Consultant: Who has followers based by need
    And three of them have “professional assignments”, it’s not natural. Made by organisations, made by authorities or established due to professional needs.
    But, at the same time, three of them could be “Leader”. Depends on the followers base needs.
    Don’t think about the “Leaders”; think about the “followers”.
    The important question is why the “followers” are following the Leaders? The definition of "Leader" can change according to answer…

  4. Dan Galarza

    Describing the definition of a leader as "one who has followers" can be misleading because although a leader may have followers, there may be an absence of leadership. Thier are many "leaders" who are assigned a group of individuals in order to support the leader’s efforts to acccomplish organizational goals. However, this is not to say that this team or group of "followers " agree, support or are cooperating with their leader. The point is that although the situation described in the blog meets the definition of a leader, it is not uncommon for their to be an absence of leadership if the leader is unable to obtain the cooperation of team. How many times have we experienced new (or long-time) supervisors or corporate leaders that because of their lack of knowledge, skill or communication abilities, are unable to attain the followership necessary to accomplish the organization’s goals?

    As the author stated in the blog, it is often implied that when we refer to leadership, we are referring to positive leadership. However, with so many instances of negative leadership (current situation on Wall Street comes to mind) shouldn’t we be more specific? Shouldn’t we have a clear deliniation of positive and negative leadership to distinguish from those who are making strides for the organization as opposed to those who are merely holding a title of "leader"?

    Lastly, I would like to offer my definition of leadership which is, "The ability to influence others to accomplish a positive goal". No matter what your responsibilities are, whether you are a secretary, foreman, salesperson or corporate executive, the moment you influence someone to take positive action that leads to, or accomplishes an organizational goal, then you have excercised leadership and it is at that point that you are truly a leader.

    Having the title of "leader" doesn’t mean you have a magical ability to influence others every moment of the day, it just means that you are expected to have more of these "moments" than the non-title holders.

  5. savita

    I feel leader is the one who influence by his vision, by his thoughts and by his mission. And for that you can not hire people becuase if you would hire them they will be only motivated by money not by your influence.

  6. Mark Entner

    Based on my time in the Army and working with leadership and organization cultural issues, I’ve developed the following working definition of leadership:

    A leader is a person that people follow…to a place they normally wouldn’t go (i.e. combat, change, vision)

    The next question is how do I get people to follow? Based on a quote of an old Army general, people will follow if they respect you.

    The next question then is how do I get people to respect me? From the same quote, I earn peoples respect by showing them the respect they deserve.

    How then do I show respect? Treat them professionally, kindly, and by listening to them and their expertise. Sounds a lot like Toyota Culture and their value of respect for people.

  7. Sue Kozlowski

    Thanks to all for your comments. I like Michael’s point about the difference between leadership as a philosophy, and leadership as a title. And Banu asks a great question – why are the followers following? which can give great insight into the leadership issue, as Savita also points out!

    Dan raises an interesting point, the relationship of "leader" to "leadership" which might go in many different directions. Henry talks about leaders’ ability to influence others – hopefully, in a positive direction!

    This discussion has helped to clarify the differences between "leader" as a functional role and "leadership" as a quality – I appreciate everyone’s contributions to the conversation.
    –Sue K.

  8. Matt Barney

    I think it’s worthwhile to unpack the behaviors that are involved in "following". When voluntary, as in Gandhi’s case, he was so successful influencing millions of people to take actions he recommended, or was himself doing, that people did as he said.

    A major piece of leadership for me is Influence. Six Sigma professionals would do well to learn about Dr. Robert Cialdini’s work, as it’s based on many decades of DOEs. He also has a NY Times bestseller right now called, "Yes: The Secret Science of Influence"

  9. A Martinez

    I would like to add to the discussion something I learned in a training about Leadership, the translation is more or less like this: "The leader serves to people, and not the opposite."

    So in a "circular" relation, the vision and mission (and also the enthusiasm) of the leader is a way for the "followers" to achieve their own "dreams". That´s why people follow the leader

  10. J Lopez

    I wish I could take all that has been posted on this topic so far and paste it to a wall in our office. This would be a great lesson for all to learn. I think sometimes even the top dogs forget why they are leaders and that affects the whole team in such a negitive way.
    I think a great point was made- Everyone is a leader if they put forth the effort. Today this posting was just what I needed to give me that little boost. Thank you!

  11. Sue Kozlowski

    Thanks, Mark, for your addendum "to a place they normally wouldn’t go" – very insightful. Matt gives us a useful reference in citing Dr. Robert Cialdini’s work, and I’ve also read "Influencer: the power to change anything" by the folks who wrote "Crucial Conversations" and "Crucial Confrontations" – Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler.

    J Lopez added a comment that made my day, and A Martinez reminds us about the concept of servant leadership. This makes me think of a section of the Tao Te Ching, number 17.

    "True leaders are hardly known to their followers.
    Next after them are the leaders people know and admire;
    After them those they fear;
    After them, those they despise.

    To give no trust is to get no trust.

    When the work’s done right, with no fuss or boasting,
    ordinary people say, ’Oh, we did it.’"

    (From the translation by Ursula K. LeGuin, 1997.)

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