Leadership is a troublesome word

I have problems with the word ‘Leadership’.

It is freighted with all sorts of hidden meaning and emotions and it brings up different images for each of us. Churchill. Caesar. Stalin. JFK. Genghis Khan. Mandela. Heroes and villains. Positives and negatives. Compliance and rebellion. Good and bad.

It is one of those words that obscures as much as it reveals. We all think we know what ‘Leadership’ is but we can’t agree on a common description. We get hijacked by dominant narratives like the Heroic Leader, the Great Man theory. We get seduced by a picture of ‘Leadership’ that is clear and simple but doesn’t reflect the messy uncertainty, contradiction and ambiguity that we see from day to day.

It is abstract, inert, distant. Something that happens outside of us, that we observe. Something we aspire to show, an act, a pose. Something we talk about but it’s always somewhere else, in some other person.

It’s a role, a status, a position. We have people who are in Leadership positions but are poor leaders. This mismatch between position and ability is not an aberration, it is a feature of organisational life and there’s a name for it – the Peter principle. It states that everyone gets promoted to a position beyond their abilities, that incompetence is the unavoidable destination for us all.

It’s is a solo enterprise. Leadership is done by a Leader. Without the Leader, there can be no Leadership. Even Leadership Teams have to have a Leader. 

We talk about ‘Leadership of ourselves’ but what does that really mean? How can we do anything other than lead ourselves?

And there’s the crux of the matter.

What we’re really trying to talk about is leading. It’s something we do, an action not a status. It’s a verb, not a noun.

It’s not some special state, some superpower, some rare skill. It’s something we all do, every day, to a greater or lesser extent. We see leading being done by all sorts of people, everyday, all over the place.

It is real, visceral, embodied. It’s there when someone steps up to help another person, or asks the question that everyone is thinking, or puts forward an idea or suggestion, or shares their art with the world. They are all leading but doing it in different ways.

It’s a team sport, not something we do alone. You can’t lead if no-one follows, if no-one responds, if no-one is affected by your act. You can’t lead on everything, the leading has to be shared around because no-one is as smart as everyone, no-one is always the best person to respond, no-one has all the answers.

So I have a problem with the word ‘Leadership’.

But leading, that’s something I want to encourage everyone to do more of.

Because we have a Leadership crisis right now and the solution is not ‘better Leaders’ but more people leading in their own unique way, so that they give us the  contribution that only they can make.

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