I just typed the word “Leadership” into Google and generated 456,000,000 results in one-third of a second. If it is to be assumed that these “hits” are not all defining leadership the same way, then there appears to be a great deal of confusion about leadership. A very short list of leadership concepts that these articles are based on would include: personality traits, behaviors, behavioral reinforcement, power, contingency theory, functional models, emotion (EQ), values, exchange theory, transformation, task focus, relationship focus, transactional theory—ad nauseum.
We go into the topic of leadership thinking that we have some idea of what it is. In short order we can be totally flummoxed. This is inevitable because we start out with an image of George Washington on a white charger and end up with situational leadership or even humility as the best way to lead. Somehow it is hard to imagine GW being a sensitive, adaptive leader; but who knows, maybe he was.
In order to keep clarity in my leadership course I have had to keep my eye on a very simple leadership lodestone. My lodestone has two parts:
• A leader has to have a vision or goal that he believes in; that is, he has to be reasonably sure of where he wants to take people. Otherwise he is like Tigger in “Winnie the Pooh”—demanding to lead, but having no idea where he is going.
• A leader must also figure out how to get people to follow. This is what most of the leadership literature focuses on, and this is where it gets confusing—because the differing leadership models are based on very different assumptions of humans.
Leadership is therefore about knowing where you are going and how you will get people to follow you there. It sounds simple; but it is not (see the first paragraph). It is difficult enough to have the right vision, but it is even more difficult to build followership. So, in my never-ending quest to make things simple, I tell my students the following:
To get people to follow, you need to be charismatic—but charismatic in the Ancient Greek sense, not in the post-1950 sense. The word charisma has come to describe a person with remarkable appeal and even charming magnetism—think Kennedy and Reagan. The problem with this definition is that so few of us have it—so we seem doomed to be followers and not leaders.
Instead I tell my students to think about charisma the way the Ancient Greeks did as a “gift of grace” (Potts, 2010). If it sounds like my seminary training is peeking through, do not panic—this is a pre-Christian concept. To the Ancient Greeks the gift of grace could take many forms including charm, beauty, fertility, creativity, etc. The central points here are that we all receive some gifts, and that these gifts can take vastly different forms. What I tell my students is that they all have been granted some gift that will motivate others to follow them; they just have to learn what their gift is. Or as Warren Bennis (or Socrates for that matter) has said, “first know yourself” (Bennis, 2009). Once you know the gift you have been given, you can build a style that is unique to yourself that others will follow.
Some people’s gift is a warm personality; for others it might be deep professional knowledge and skill; for still others it could be the reputation of getting things accomplished. The point is to find your gift and develop it (Potts, 2010).
In my classes I have many first-generation American students who are the first in their families to get a college education, let alone a graduate degree. They bring with them stories of family members who faced overwhelming challenges. The same is true for many of these students—and the way that these challenges have been faced and overcome illustrates many of the leadership gifts (charisma) that these students have been given.
One student stands out particularly for me. She had a stammer that made it extremely difficult for her to do class presentations—yet she stood up and did it. While it was uncomfortable for all, we all listened with respect. At the end of the course I told her I saw her as a leader. As someone who probably saw herself as a limited leader because of her challenge, she was surprised and asked me why? I told her it was because of her bravery. The bravery it took to deliver a stand-up presentation reminded me more than a little of Colin Firth playing King George VI in “The King’s Speech.” For that reason, I would follow her.
So the answer to the question “what is the best leadership?” is not to be found in the leadership literature. Rather, it is found in us. If we “know ourselves,” and can find our gift/charisma, then we can go to the literature and find out how to use it best. If one’s gift is personal bravery, then read about how to use it. If one’s gift is the ability to listen, well then use it. And I suppose, if one happens to have a white charger and a sword—then by all means, use them too.
Bennis, W. (2009). On Becoming a Leader. New York: Basic Books.
Potts, J. (2010). A History of Charisma. New York: PalgraveMacMillan.