Leadership : What is Leadership?

Dr. Marc T. Frankel consults nationally on organizational development, leadership, change management, executive assessment and coaching. Dr. Frankel, a founding partner in Leadership Innovation Associates (St. Louis), is now a principal consultant with Triangle Associates of St. Louis. He is Past-President of the Society for Psychologists in Management, and former Managing Editor of its journal, The Psychologist-Manager.

E-mail Dr Frankel at  marc@ta-stl.com.

What is Leadership?

At our leadership development programs, we typically eschew answering this question with a declarative, "Leadership is…" sort of response. Our vagueness is deliberate rather than obfuscatory—leadership contains too many concepts and abstractions to yield a unitary definition. A few of the metaphoric concepts we find lurking within leadership follow: 

  • A moment. Leadership is in part a moment, a chance opportunity, when someone steps forward and says, "This way, follow me." But, we find that once the moment passes, the leader just as often steps back and allows others to lead (the yin and yang of leadership and followership will recur in a later section). The notion of moment assumes context; there must be people to lead, a need for leadership, and someone capable of leading.
  • A journey. Leadership is not a final destination we arrive at after a period of preparation. Rather, it is a lifelong trip toward a greater degree of self-awareness and interpersonal skill. In effect, one is perpetually on the way toward becoming a leader, rather than existing as one in final form. The journey of leadership is about self-awareness and other-awareness (not at all the same thing as self-consciousness and other-consciousness). Some journeys, like those that take us from one physical place to another, are largely about propulsion or moving objects through space. Leadership is largely about understanding and connecting; these forces together are the energies propelling organizations forward through time.
  • A symphony. Max DePree, former Chief Executive of Herman Miller, says that the self is the instrument in the performing art of leadership. The music, though, is symphonic in nature; it consists of notes coming from many instruments. This is why one cannot lead only oneself. It is not that the piano cannot stand alone as an instrument; performance artists such as George Winston and Michael Jones beautifully elevate the solo piano as an art form. Rather, it is that organizations are by their design about more than a single instrument.

What is the relationship between leadership and followership?


They are two sides of the same coin. Leaders are not leading all the time; nor are followers continuously responding to direction. Rather, leadership exists in relationships between people, some of which will necessarily include supervision, but, for the most part, are quite fluid concerning role. Our popular culture and use of language tend to depict leaders as "in charge," while followers are "worker bees." I am talking in this article about something a bit more abstract than leadership and followership as depicted in an organizational chart.


Leadership and followership are roles in relationship to each other that all of us are constantly moving in and out of at work. Who is the leader? Well, the answer is that it depends. To understand who is and who is not leading, one must examine the roles that exist in exchanges between people apart from the duties inherent in the organization’s positional structure. Viewed through this lens, the lowest ranking employees lead when taking the initiative to work across departmental boundaries to solve customer service problems on the spot. Likewise, they are followers when aligning their activities with the founder’s vision for the organization.


Support for this dialectical conceptualization of leadership comes from Robert F. Bales, the developer of the SyMLOG leadership assessment model, who finds that the "most effective profile" of a leader and a follower are essentially isomorphic. Becoming an effective leader, then, requires becoming an effective follower, and vice versa.


More importantly, our culture (meaning late 20th Century North America) makes too much of leadership and not enough of followership. Most of us grew up modeling the "sage on a stage" concept of leadership. We learned from teachers standing in front of the room imparting knowledge for the class to absorb. Educators, especially those in adult learning, know that the didactic method is an effective and efficient way to impart concrete, factual information. Nevertheless, it is not a good way to create new knowledge, solve complex problems, or generate enthusiasm in the leaner.


Similarly, despite the efficiency and, at times, necessity of command-and-control leadership, such a strategy is inadequate for the complex challenges of post-modern organizational life. It is our belief that leaders must expand their repertoire of leadership practices, and, in the process, they must become better at following. The art is in knowing whether the moment requires one or the other.


Are leaders born or made?


Yes. Both are true. Some of the qualities of effective leadership appear to have roots in personality and, as such, are like ly to either be genetically encoded or the product of formative early experience (so formative that it might as well be inborn).


Judith Viorst in her recent book Imperfect Control (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998) traces the discoveries of biologists seeking to map the human genome that indicate a genetic substrate beneath a ever-expanding array of personality factors. Viorst considers the meaning of free will if so much of who and what we are appear to be literally beyond our control. She ends up with the elegant and remarkable conclusion that free will is what exists in the space between impulse and action. The truth about psychotherapy is that complete personality change rarely happens; more typical are cases where individuals learn to manage or mitigate their impulses and first tendencies. We may be powerless over our initial emotional reaction to something (for example, to flee or otherwise avoid confrontation), but as humans we can actively chose a different course of action. We can stay and face our fear instead. It is over this choice that we have control.


Following Viorst’s notion, some of us arrive in adulthood better equipped than others to be leaders. Our genetics, differential socialization experiences, and varying educational and occupational histories simply dictate wide individual variation in preparedness. Nonetheless, in the space between impulse (or first inclination) and action lies our opportunity to chose to be leaders. This is the reason to study leadership and the attributes of an effective leader.


What about the "vision thing?"


It is popular to expect leaders, especially those in positions of leadership, to articulate a vision of organizational direction. While we agree that knowing where the enterprise should go is crucial for, as the Rabbit told Alice, "when you don’t know where you are going, anyplace will do," it is also valuable to discern among visions. The importance of this distinction was brought home during a leadership program when a participant cleverly asked us "how do you know when the visions of a leader are authentic and when they should be treated with medication?" A very good question indeed! For every case study we can think of organizations wandering in the wilderness for lack of a vision, we can also think of cases where organizations (and nations) have been led over a cliff by a mentally ill or egomaniacal chief executive.


While there are no guarantees, it is possible to state criteria for evaluating the authenticity of a vision:

  1. Authentic visions frequently emerge from a carefully reasoned process; that is, they are the product of a series of steps including an environmental scan, inventory of organizational capabilities, market analysis, and clear thinking about emergent trends carried into the future. This underscores the need for applied strategic planning.
  2. Authentic visions withstand the scrutiny of multiple eyes; that is, once others in the organization have an opportunity to study the vision, it seems to make sense to them, too.
  3. Authentic visions meet the criteria for good decision-making; that is, the vision still makes sense even when leaders have obtained all the information they can reasonably have beforehand (which by definition can never include outcome data), and are making the evaluation as rationally as possible (that is, free from unwarranted assumptions and hopes).

Our experience is that most faulty visions would not pass any of the tests above. These directions too often emerge as the result of a single mind working its own agenda in a vacuum of empirical examination. We are all for leaders with vision; we want to minimize "trips to Abilene." (The Abilene Paradox, a popular business book by Jerry B. Harvey in 1988, chronicles in an amusing analogy the problems inherent in groupthink or failure to ask questions.)


Is there a "dark side" to leadership


We are all familiar with the despotic and tyrannical leaders that leap off the pages of the daily newspaper or from between the covers of history books. Figures such as Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin illustrate well the perils of powerful and sometimes charismatic leaders going astray. Current stories and images from Kosovo, Rwanda and elsewhere drive home the point that atrocities are not a quaint relic of the past. Does this mean that leadership can have a "dark side;" that is, that one’s leadership can be used for evil ends, even if on a smaller scale than would make the front pages of daily newspapers?


The answer, of course, is in the affirmative, and this fact argues compellingly that followers must measure the worth of a leader’s mission against a criterion of sound ethical and moral values. However, that is only a public aspect of the dark side. One need no be a demonic tyrant to experience the internal pitfall of leadership: arrogance.


Positional leaders are especially vulnerable to arrogance. An old television advertisement for carpeting told us that "a title on the door rates a Bigelow on the floor," as if the position itself conveys entitlement to finer things. Historically, especially where leadership has been rooted in familial lineage, there have been many perquisites that accompany title and rank. The disparity in income between the top and bottom of U.S. corporations yields a disparity in lifestyle that rivals that separating royalty and subjects, and can be a breeding ground for arrogance.


At the same time, I recognize that there may well be a need for some trappings of positional leadership. Former President Jimmy Carter campaigned on a populist theme (frequently a winning strategy in U.S. elections), and carried this forward into his White House, culminating in a photo-op moment of Carter carrying his own luggage aboard an airplane. Yet, it can reasonably be argued that Carter’s populist behavior (as opposed to campaign philosophy) contributed to his vulnerability to the more formal image cultivated by Ronald Reagan in 1980. It seems we want our leaders—at least those in positions of leadership—to display some of the benefits of position. The art is in finding the balance between extremes. More to the point, the art is in avoiding the arrogance of entitlement; in other words, the dark side of leadership.


Why learn about leadership if I do not aspire to a leadership position?


Because leadership is all of the above metaphors and more. It is true that a relatively small subgroup of individuals practice management in organizations. However, mentally connecting leadership with management sets up a destructive fusion that incorrectly assumes leadership is synonymous with position.


We are all practicing leadership. Our leadership may be effective or ineffective, honorable or devious, focused or aimless; we may succeed or fail to accomplish results; the organization may thrive, survive or wither. Nonetheless, all of us practice the interwoven dynamics of leadership and followership. Our choice is not about being leaders; rather, it is about better leading.

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