What is leadership? A question that has evaded precise definition for decades now; and I certainly have no intent to solve this conundrum where answers equal the number of people who attempt such. Each bestseller has new advice, and now and again someone claims deeper thinking on this matter. The best I can do, is to give my opinion and experience on what leadership is, but more importantly, what I believe it is not...
Through the years I have worked hard as leadership trainer and strategy development consultant to determine some common characteristics to leadership. My criteria for such dimensions was that it must be applicable to leaders in government, business, religion, non-profit causes, science, academia or any other sphere where a person has taken leadership. This is what my research produced…
The purpose leadership…
Before understanding the purpose of leadership one needs to understand the purpose of organisations, since no leader can exist outside an organised system. Consequently, without organisation there can be no leadership. The purpose of organisations are to stay relevant and to perform. This is what all organisations do, irrelevant or their sector or industry. Performance is the ability to maintain established cyclic processes and relevance is the ability to stay externally sponsored. At the workplace we mostly refer to processes as operations. This is where we repeat and perfect that which we have done yesterday. In my experience this is a management function. To stay relevant, on the other hand, requires an ability to negotiate sponsorship from the environment who warrants your existence as well as the competence to initiate and execute projects, which ensures the change that is necessary for continual survival. Thus, the purpose of any leader is primarily to influence change and to negotiate relevance. This could be a military General on the battle field, a supervisor leading a team who are developing new prototypes, or any other person who acts as guardian against the kingdom of irrelevance. To define the purpose of leadership seems straight forward, but the question remains, what common characteristics do leaders have?
The character of leadership…
Over the years, literally hundreds of qualities have been ‘bestowed’ on leaders. Some of the most assumed traits are, pro-activeness; good communication skills; respectfulness; quiet confidence; enthusiasm; open-mindedness; resourcefulness; the need to reward others; creativity, organised; consistent behaviour; delegators; positive attitude; intuitive; well educated; open to change; interested in feedback, just to name a few. Yet, with a bit of thinking, I was able to create doubt on almost all of the characteristics named above. In my research, I could only find two truly common virtues that great leaders must have. These are…
The ability to create vision; and
The ability to influence others to work towards such vision.
Some leaders might have good communication skills, are respectful, interested in feedback, etc. but many are not. To my mind, the only true characteristics of leadership are vision and influence. All other attributes relate to mere personality preferences and follower needs. This brings me to the next point, which is that much of what we believe of leadership are mere myth…
The Five Great Myths of leadership (what leadership is not)…
1. Leaders have high Emotional Intelligence (EQ)
It is most common of blog-authors and motivational speakers to endorse the ability of leaders to be intra- and inter-personally intelligent. Of all the leadership myths, I believe this one to farthest from the truth. In his book, ‘A First-Rate Madness’, author Nassir Ghaemi draws strong links between leadership and mental illness. All you have to do is pick the name of a great leader and google will prove that there is a 5/10 chance that such person suffered from some type of emotional disorder. Nelson Mandela cheated on his first wife and was married three times; Charles Darwin suffered from severe agoraphobia and had an intense fear of people; Abraham Lincoln, Ludwig von Beethoven, Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill, Marlon Brando, Jim Carry, J.K Rowling, Ernest Hemingway and Vincent von Gogh are but a few examples of immensely influential people who all suffered from bipolar disease and manic depression; Lady Diana, princess of Wales, had an bulimic addiction and suffered from severe depression; Heath Ledger, Kurt Cobain, Elvis, Michael Jackson and Witney Houston all suffered from drug addiction and suicidal depression; George W Bush, John F Kennedy and Franklin D Roosevelt are only a few examples of American presidents who have been reported to abuse alcohol; and it is recorded that the father of modern science, Sir Isaac Newton suffered from bipolar disorder combined with psychotic tendencies and a total inability to connect with people; Benjamin Franklin was addicted to a mixture between alcohol and opium up to the day of his death; Pope Leo XIII was addicted to cocaine; Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., both made suicide attempts in adolescence and had a number of severe depressive episodes in adulthood. I could go on and on with this list, to the point where it becomes a recipe for insomnia. In the 2013 Forbes article, ‘Why The Brains Of High-Powered People May Be More Prone To Addiction’, author Alice Walton explains, “that the best leaders among us – the most driven, dedicated, and outside-the-box thinkers – are wired a bit differently from the rest.” Two things that we have to agree with here, is firstly, that all the people mentioned above were great leaders in their respective fields, and secondly, that being chronically depressed, suicidal, avoiding people and drug abuse absolutely contradicts the notion of being intra- and interpersonally effective. In reality, there is probably a greater case for emotional dysfunction than emotional intelligence as common factor to great leadership.
2. Leaders are Proactive
In his book, ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’, Steven Covey argues that proactive people focus on things that are important but not urgent, whereas reactive people will focus on things that are both urgent and important. Much of the motivational gospel today claims that leaders must be proactive. Yet, great leaders are made in times of mammoth reaction. Winston Churchill was immortalised through his reaction to Hitler in the Second World War; Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein both changed science history when they reacted to incorrect thinking in this field, and today, the most powerful person in the world (Forbes List 2015, December), Vladimir Putin, made social media waves when reacting with large scale attacks against Syria after a Russian fighter aircraft was shot down. In terms of Covey’s definition, I would suggest that leaders are far more likely to be created in circumstances where things are both important and urgent as opposed to where things are important, but not urgent. Thus by nature, leaders are reactive. This explains why leadership mostly creates an immense amount of dependency with those that follow them. Of course, you could argue that many leaders react as a proactive measure, but I would counter argue that even the most proactive action is a reaction to something, thus making pure proactive action impossible.
3. Leaders are Positive
In the 30 June 2011, Wall Street Journal article, ‘Depression in Command’, Nassir Ghaemi states, “Normal, non-depressed persons have what psychologists call ‘positive illusion’—that is, they possess a mildly high self-regard, a slightly inflated sense of how much they control the world around them. Mildly depressed people, by contrast, tend to see the world more clearly, more as it is.” As stated earlier, leaders change things. Where no change is needed, leadership becomes irrelevant. Mostly this change is the result of being negative about something; e.g., Mandela was negative towards apartheid, Ghandi was negative towards British rule in India; Steve Jobs was negative towards the current state of home computing, etc. A common trait in leadership is that leaders are mostly negative towards the past and positive towards the future, especially if such future is a creation of their own vision.
4. Leaders put People first
Leadership implies followership. Thus, by its very nature, people are important to leaders, because without such they cannot exist. Studies have shown that depressed people often demonstrate a higher level of empathy towards others. Earlier I have eluded to the possibility that many high powered people are often depressive, and therefore possibly care deeply about others. There is thus no question that great leaders care and feel deeply for their followers. But do leaders put people first? My research has shown that, although most leaders care deeply about their followers, it is their vision or goal that comes first, even if this means sacrificing the same people that they love. The greatest leaders of our time, including political leaders as Mandela, Ghandi, Lincoln, business leaders and even spiritual leaders did not blink an eye to sacrifice their own people and in many cases themselves for (to their minds) the greater goal.
5. Leaders are Democratic
There prevails a strong romantic notion that leaders are democratic. There are even a number of psychometric tests that aim to verify that you have democratic tendencies, and if so it is professed that you will be a good leader. But, in my research, I could not find one great democracy brought about by democratic leaders. When the South African Government wanted to talk to Nelson Mandela, whilst he was still in prison, fellow political prisoners, outvoted such move, but Mandela nevertheless went ahead. After his release from prison, Mandela’s executive team voted that the Springbok rugby emblem must be changed to a Protea (the official South African flower). Mandela had a vision of uniting the South African nation and knew that changing the emblem of a sport mainly supported by white South Africans could do much more harm than good. Subsequently he made a very autocratic decision to keep the emblem. This decision later proved immensely wise when South Africa won the world cup in rugby on home ground. Similarly Abraham Lincoln was outvoted when suggesting that they should abolish slavery, and neither did Ghandi ask Great Britain to leave India, he told them to go. These are small and mediocre examples of how great men made high impact decisions against the wishes of their constituencies. In fact, I found the greatest democracies of history being established by incredibly autocratic leaders. The mere semantic of leadership implies autocracy. The true nature of leadership is much more autocratic than democratic. Leaders who have left legacy beyond comparison, all very much knew their own autocratic tendencies, and for this reason they knew when to leave. Mandela only stood as South African president for one term, Ghandi refused presidency of India, Bill Gates reigned as CEO in 2000, etc. But, this is a topic for another article.
Are Leaders Born or Made?
This is a favourite debate during leadership workshops. The easiest way to answer this question is to revisit our primary characteristics of leadership, namely the ability to create vision and the power to influence others towards such vision. In terms of influence, of course it can be taught, coached, mentored, etc. Negotiation skills training is a good example of teaching people to influence others. Thus we can teach a prospective leader in the art of influence. But can I teach you to create vision? This becomes more problematic, and if not impossible, very close to such. Then there are the circumstantial factors, such as upbringing, problems posed by the environment, etc. Throughout history leadership has been very context specific. Most great leaders were made during a very specific time and within a very specific environment. To answer the initial question, I would advocate that there are leadership characteristics that can be taught, such as the art of influence, but that there are an equal amount of characteristics that cannot be taught such as the ability to create vision. Also, you cannot teach a person to be born at a specific time within specific circumstances and in a specific environment.
Thus far, I have been focussing on international leaders that have influenced the world, but most reading this article will need to understand leadership in a much smaller and localised environment, such as their organisation. I do not think that the character of leadership is any different on any level. I do, however, believe that people loosely use the term leadership for contexts that actually imply management. A lot of the characteristics like emotional intelligence, democracy, positive thinking, pro-active action and people orientation are strong requirements for management. Most books, articles and workshops on leadership are often more directed at efficient management, although it is sold as effective leadership. I am a strong advocate that the one is not more important than the other, and that these crucial elements should be in equilibrium with each other. In essence leadership is about changing things and management is about maintaining things. The former is project-based whilst the latter focusses on cyclic processes. Together they keep the system relevant whilst ensuring that it performs optimally.
To answer the question to what leadership is, I would simply say that whoever you are and within whichever environment you function, the need for change will determine and endorse your leadership behaviour. High impact change such as establishing a new government will require highly disruptive leadership, whereas low impact change such as arranging a year end function will favour a process efficiency approach. It all begins with a clear goal or vision, which is then translated to a strategy, executed by a team, and sponsored by an external environment…
If you are a prospective leader, then the best advice I can give is to find your place of influence and then to make things happen by using what you have at your disposal. Find your strengths, and know that even weaknesses such as depression, peculiar looks, a terrible childhood, etc. can be strengths. Use everything at your disposal as a tool of influence. Danny De Vito used his peculiar body type to become one of Hollywood’s top comedians, Arnold Schwarzenegger used his strange accent as a trademark and Churchill’s depressive personality drove him to immense defeats. Secondly, turn all the energy of those around you towards achieving your vision. Create a powerful team and sell your vision with all that you have. Where your team believes in your vision they will follow and become an army of focus.
In my strategy development and implementation workshop, I work with strategic leadership, which combines leadership skills with strategy development and implementation.
© 29 November 2015 Derek Hendrikz Consulting www.derekhendrikz.com