Defining Leadership – Who are leaders, and who is not?


One of the conundrums with leadership is actually trying to define what it is.  An analogy is ethics.  We know when we don’t see it.  The reverse is a little more of a challenge.  But trying to define ethics is quite a challenge.

I teach a class on ethics to professional engineers and to undergraduate students.  One of the more interesting exercises is trying to define ethical behavior.  Ethics is an issue that comes up on an ongoing basis, affecting politicians, engineers, consultants, and utility staff members.  But what are ethics?  To answer this question, or begin to, we can turn to philosophy to attempt to define ethics.  A cursory review indicates three potential definitions of ethical people:

  • A set of values and lives by them.
  • Any set of values which are shared by a group of people.
  • A set of values that are universally accepted.

Let’s take a look at each of these.  First is a person with a set of values and lives by them.  What do we make of this definition?  Do we accept it?  Or a person like this?  The first definition is pretty easy to explain away.  Few people buy into this as an ethical person because the values can vary and may include individuals with individual sets of ideals (Robin Hood) or people with frequently unaccepted behaviors (anti-social, etc.).

So obviously, a person with any set of values which are shared by a group of people set of values and lives by them must be better.  What do we make of this definition?  Do we accept it?  Or a person like this?  Seems ok.  These people share many of the same beliefs and conform to an accepted set of “rules” and acceptable behavior.  Engineers are among the groups with common values.  But alas, this definition is also pretty easy to explain away.  Few people buy into this as an ethical person because the values can vary and may include individuals with individual sets of ideals. Suggestions brought up by class members were:  cult members, terrorists, certain political regimes. etc.

So obviously, a person with a set of values that are universally accepted must be perfect? What do we make of this definition?  Do we accept it?  Or a person like this?  Name one example of a universally accepted value.  There are times when killing is ok.  Honesty sounds great, but honesty isn’t when it hurts someone deeply.  So actually none of these definitions is useful.

Another tactic is to look at professions to see if there are commonalities among our perception of ethical and unethical professions (ignoring whether or not the perception reflects reality or not).  There are some common examples that come up (sorry car salesmen, mechanics, lawyers and politicians).  The commonality with the professions perceived to be unethical is money – they perform a service for someone specific and expect to be paid for it.  There is limited quality control.

On the other hand, those professions viewed as ethical by most are things like public safety, education and technical people.  Generally speaking the perception is that these people serve the public.  There is a clear delineation in people’s minds about professions, money and public service that shape their view about ethics.  That makes it a lot easier to see who is and who is not ethical.

Ethics provides an analogy for leadership.  It is hard to define leadership, because it comes in many forms and is often specific to the approach to a situation.  A quarterback who is a great leader of the field, might not be the best choice to leader the reorganization of a major corporation.  Both positions require leadership, but the skill sets required for the positions is situational.  Because we cannot define the skill set for every situation, we tend to look at examples of people who are leaders or who have exhibited leadership in the past and try to draw from their experience, what made them a leader.

A problem is that we often don’t recognize leadership at the time it is occurring. It is so much easier to identify people who are not exhibiting good leadership, or who’s idea of leadership clearly is self-serving or narrowly focused; people will not follow these types of people for long because there is no shared benefit.  A person is not a leader if they do not display a consistent vision of where they want to take the organization. Changing direction constantly disrupts the efficient flow of work efforts and frustrates followers/employees.  People who do not add value to the organization, can only ”lead” by coercion, which is the antithesis of leadership.  Leadership requires no coercion.  We often come across people who cannot communicate their ideas clearly, another hallmark of a leadership failure. If people do not follow, the leader is failing to lead.

So perhaps, like ethics, we can find leadership by looking at the opposite of what we view as the failure to lead.  That means leaders should be able to communicate clearly, their vision.  And they need that vision or direction that people buy into.  We can evaluate leadership by those who follow, and their willingness to follow.  Leaders must bring value to the organization, as well as skills and knowledge.  Because leaders tend to know their limitations, they will bring in people to fill those gaps.  That means leaders will hire the best people they can, without worrying about whether they are vying for some future position. Leaders have confidence in their abilities, and strive to make everyone better in the organization.  Keep in mind, if you set someone up to fail, they will.  It is a failure of management and leadership to put people in the position to fail.  When provided a challenge, it is how the leader attacks it, and how they marshal resources to succeed.  As a result, leaders may exist at every level of the organization.  The challenge is seeking them out, and putting them in position to succeed.

If all this sound vaguely like football or the battlefield, well it should.  In the NFL, the skill sets are similar, it is the mental aspects, the vision, the ability to work together, the willingness to do the little things that do not always get noticed, and the ability to cover someone’s weaknesses by exploiting your strengths that wins football games.  You need talent, but you need leadership to be successful.  The teams with lots of great players that never win are legion.  Teams change coaches, and players, trying to find that tri9ght mix.  When the team finds the mix, success follows.  Lincoln found this during the Civil War.  He spent time with the troops.  He communicated his vision to them, expressed his appreciation for their efforts, supported them and they were enthusiastic supporters.  HIs generals, well another matter.  So Lincoln kept changing generals until he found Grant who would fight and end the war, his vision of the end game – to win.

Now the question is where are our water leaders.  Who are they and what is their vision…

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