Defining Leadership Part 1

What exactly is leadership?  How is defined?  How do we find leaders?  What are the skills required to be a leader?  These are tough questions, and the answers are often and murky as the Colorado or Mississippi Rivers in springtime.  If picking leaders was easy, all organizations would be successful.  But they are not.  If leadership skills were easily defined, there would be a lot more schools trying to teach leadership , and they would create generations of leaders.  But they don’t.  It is so much easier to see leadership after the fact, not beforehand, and that is the challenge.  This about our elected officials.  Let’s start with the President and Congress.  We elect these people to lead us.  Periodically we pick one who leads us, often no so much.  No offense intended here, but can we really say that Herbert Hoover, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, or Warren Harding were great leaders/  They rank in US News’s worst 10 presidents of all time.  And our perception is generally the same (assuming you know enough US history to know these characters).   Was it their fault?  Hard to tell.  Circumstances were not in their favor, but what did they do to lead the nation from the difficulties?

Ulysses Grant and Zachary Taylor were great leaders on the battlefield, but they were failures as President.  Why? Different skill sets.  Their best skills were not transferrable to the Presidency.  Interestingly, Lincoln’s forays into combat in 1841, were utterly unsuccessful, he was demoted from Captain to private.  HE took this failure as an opportunity to learn and study, and then find talent to implement the plan (although it could be argued he dallied far to long with various generals in the Army of the Potomac, before promoting Grant). But we see Lincoln very differently than those noted above in part because they were able to lead us through difficult times.  History treats FDR, Teddy Roosevelt and Kennedy similarly.  But how did we pick these leaders in those times?  And how to we find ones for today?

Defining leadership appears o be better defined by identifying what is not leadership.  Scott Adams’ Dilbert comic strip has a book entities “Don’t step in the Leadership.”  The entire comic is focused on the silliness of managers trying to “lead” their charges.  Apparently Mr. Adams has many years worth of stories to tell.  Our reality is similar to Dilbert’s:  we see many examples of people who are not leaders.  Leadership and being the utility director, CEO, mayor, commissioner or any position “in charge” of an organization are often not related.  That is why if you ask, you can find out from the employees who are the “go to” people, the ones they rely on and follow.  Those are the true leaders.  They often outlast the leadership, especially is the positional leadership does not tap into their skill set.

People often desire to be the boss and to lead the organization but many never actually lead just like failed Presidents.  Some may think they are in charge, but if you lead no one, you are not a leader regardless of your title.  A leader is defined by those who follow him/her.  Leaders require no coercion to get people to follow through on their vision.  But a vision is needed.  It may not be a popular vision, and it may not be easy, but your followers must buy into it and be active in pursuing it.  One problem with today’s version of leadership in politics is the fear of tough decisions, or making part of the electorate unhappy.  CEOS often follow the corporate need to make money every quarter, at the expense of the long-term.  How many companies have failed to keep up with technology, upgrade facilities (at a cost), or alter their products to maintain market share?  It took years for the Big Three automakers to figure out that people did not want gas guzzling cars as gas prices increased, at the cost of market share, growth and profits.  The examples are endless.

So what to we look for with potential leaders?  That’s the question.  We want a vision.  We want skills and knowledge about that vision.  We want competency.  People skills.  The ability to take responsibility for the failures, and to share in success with those that supported the effort.  To bring value to the organization.  So next post let’s look at some examples.  In the meantime, post some thoughts on what you think leaders should look like.


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