Chapter 1 – What is Leadership?

To study anything; to truly look at it in an objective way and then to share that experience is a true challenge.  First you must first be able to agree on what it that you are talking about.   That seemingly simple first step is often harder than it seems, particularly when it comes to the subject of leadership.

Most of us have heard the parable of the three blind men and the elephant.  In it, each of these blind men grasps at a particular part of the elephant.  Each imagines and describes the creature in the context of that particular facet.  To the one who held the tail, it was like a rope.  To the one who touched it’s massive flank it was like a living wall.  To the one who held the trunk it was like a large pipe.

So it is with leadership.

I had accepted a daunting task when I agreed to develop a course on leadership.  The topic is huge and wide-ranging.  There is an enormous body of literature and a history as long as that of humanity itself.   It weaves itself as a theme across various epochs, locations and cultures.   There is a mountain of writing on this topic.  Lastly, I didn’t have much time.  I was given only a few weeks to develop the course.  I knew that I couldn’t possibly develop it all prior to the start of the course.   I would have to explore  and develop it while simultaneously teaching it.

I was prepared for some flexibility, but I couldn’t just make this a meandering walk in the wilderness.  To make this work, I had to develop at least a framework for organizing and exploring the topic of leadership in a meaningful way.  If I didn’t have a precise roadmap and travel guide, I at least needed a north star and some methods of navigation.   I had to create settle on a definition and a working model of leadership that would sustain a thirteen-week graduate level course. The model would give us areas to explore.  The definition would allow us to stay on course, weeding out the irrelevant and the inaccurate.   Based on my experience and the topic, I appreciated both the ease and the danger of wandering off track.

Over the years I have had a unique privilege of working with some amazing leaders both in business and politics.  I have been able to compare the close up view of the real person with what had been written about them. Distortions and inaccuracies abound.  Stories told by followers, opponents and even by so called objective observers alternately mythologize or vilify them, exaggerating or trivializing their contribution and accomplishments.  This is compounded by the tendency of leaders and would be leaders to engage in a similar practice. Whether this stems from a desire for privacy, humility or even vanity is irrelevant.  It distorts the real stories.  To paraphrase the lyric from the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, to see them clearly, we are left with the task of stripping away the myth from the person.

It was with this resultant skepticism that I began to look at the subject. I reread and rethought books and articles that I had read in the past.  Given the short time I had to prepare I was grateful for my need to take notes, often in the text itself, to write articles or give talks on topics I have read.   I could never have covered all of the necessary material without the aid of those notes and reminders.

My review was a whirlwind journey from Jim Collin’s “Good to Great” with his idea of Level 5 Leadership to Sun Tzu’s “Art of War”.  It covered a vast period of time and was as wide ranging as it was eclectic.   It took me from Karen Armstrong’s biographies of Buddha and Mohammed to secular giants in the twentieth century such as Churchill to Martin Luther King.

It crept into my day to day life.  When you focus intensely on a topic, suddenly you see it everywhere.

Articles I read, movies I watched, conversations struck up with friends, presentations I would go to and even social media posts all seemed to have an aspect of leadership woven into them.   A friend and collaborator from my past – Ayelet Baron – called me one night and invited me to share in her some thinking she was doing in a couple of internet communities.  Her theme?  You guessed it.  Leadership.

The deaths of Nelson Mandela and Pete Seeger happened while I was engaged in developing this material.  In their own ways, both were incredibly powerful leaders who changed the history of their time.   Their stories resonated deeply and challenged me to understand what these disparate figures had in common.

Everything, everywhere turned to the subject of leadership.

Despite the surfeit of information, clarity eluded me.  Like the blind men of the parable, I saw a different picture each time I focused on a particular leader or event in their lives.  Yet I needed more than simply a collection of unrelated attributes and anecdotes. How could I explore – how could I teach leadership without a model that allowed me to explore how these facets engaged to create this thing we call leadership.  I had a lot of ideas, but was still missing that crucial, precise and elusive definition of leadership.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention.  If so, then desperation is the father of improvisation.  In a moment of fatigue driven inspiration, I saw the problem for what it was.  It wasn’t the topic. It was me.

I was trying too hard to impart my wisdom, feeling that I had to have all the right answers.  I wasn’t ill prepared; I had spent my working life trying to understand leadership  – not just studying it, but living it.  I had been guided by superb teachers and mentors.  I had lived through the creation and development of political, social and business organizations.  I had been privileged to work closely with some truly great leaders – some well known and some unknown.   It had gnawed at me that while I had great confidence in my work supporting roles I was less certain about my own leadership abilities. It may be ego, but I have always been confident as a loyal advisor or second in command.  It was only my own leadership that I questioned.  But once I realized that a leader didn’t have to have all the answers, the picture shifted.   The insecurity didn’t fade away, but it was replaced with a resolve to trust that my students and I could find the answers – together.

I headed off to my first class not with the answer, but with the problem.  I shared the related but different definitions and viewpoints, the differing perspectives on leadership that I had encountered.  I gathered up what these others had said and brought that together as a discussion.  It was the blind men and the elephant in reverse.  I would gather up all of the observations and we ask what they said to us in their totality.

I have to be fair.  I distrust quotations.  I know how flawed and inaccurate they often are.  Out of context, frequently rewritten and sometimes just not even vaguely true – quotations, particularly gleaned from internet sources should never be taken as accurate.   If you ever want to find yourself never trusting a quote again, just read or follow Fred Shapiro – the editor of the Yale Book of Quotations.   According to Shapiro, most quotes ascribed to icons famous people like Mark Twain, Einstein and Yogi Berra are just plain wrong.   Much of the others have been re-written.  Only are very few are accurate.  A great illustration is what Shapiro says is one of the few reliable Yogi Berra quotes,  “I really didn’t say everything I said.”

Quotations may be an imperfect way of making or winning an argument, but they are a good way of starting a discussion.  And that’s precisely what I wanted to do.   So to represent the various perspectives and points I found quotes about leadership from great thinkers and leaders and used these as a leaping off point to discuss the essence and definition of leadership. [1]

Here are some of the quotes and the themes that we explored.  You will see that some gave insight, some raised more questions.

Leaders Need Followers

This seemed certain, and perhaps obvious.   Leaders need followers.  It’s not something you can do alone:

“If you think you are leading and turn around to see no one following, then you are just taking a walk.”

Benjamin Hooks, retired Director of the NAACP

It’s true that leader needs to have followers. Is anyone a leader because they have followers?  Is a commander a leader?  Is a dictator a leader?  For that matter, is a prophet always a leader?  IS how the leader gets followers as  important as having followers.   If not, then John Nisbitt’s cynical view would also be a correct definition of leadership:

“Leadership involves finding a parade and getting in front of it.”  John Naisbitt, author

If Naisbitt is being cynical, the master of wit and cynicism, playwright Oscar Wild takes it a step further to reveal just how illogical the proposition is that a leader is someone who just gets out in front of a trend:

“Those who try to lead the people can only do so by following the mob.”   Oscar Wilde, writer and poet

To Wilde, those who simply follow the trend, or in Naisbitt’s terms, “get in front of the parade” or the “mob” as Wilde terms it are actually followers, not leaders.

There is something more to leadership than simply being on the right or the popular side of every issue.  Rosalyn Carter, the wife of former president Jimmy Carter made this point clearly:

“A leader takes people where they want to go.  A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.”   Rosalyn Carter, former First Lady and wife of former president Jimmy Carter.

This definition is even more poignant when you consider that some feel her husband lost his leadership position because he refused to do what the public wanted.   In the days of the Iranian hostage taking, many urged Carter to  take the offensive and attack, but for reasons some saw as principle and others saw as vacillation, he refused.

No one disputes Carter’s principles.  He was living evidence of the belief that it was the job of a leader is to get people to go where they do not necessarily want to go, but rather should go.  Nor can you really dispute his results.  Although the hostages were released on the date that his rival, Ronald Reagan took over power, the negotiations that brought about the release had occurred some time before that.   Nevertheless, the perception of weakness saved the hostages but cost him the presidency.

Should Carter have behaved differently?  If he had followed the mob mentality and done the sabre rattling that Reagan was prone to, would he have won a second term?  Should he have done this even though in his heart he felt he was following the best course of action to save the lives of the 52 American hostages?  Years later when George Bush went into Afghanistan as a reprisal for the 911 attacks, he looked decisive, but was anything really accomplished? Bush may have committed the US to a costly and ineffective military initiative, but he won a second term as president.   Does the end justify the means?  Is the real leader the one who wins or holds the power, no matter how they do it?

Leadership  and commanding are not the same thing

Leadership and positions of power are often used interchangeably.   Yet, those who have led, and even those who have been “commander in chief” do not always see power or command as leadership.

Abraham Lincoln was the president who led the US into the civil war, ostensibly with the aim of freeing the black population from slavery, or even to the more cynical, with a still noble intent of keeping the United States as one united country.  Lincoln made the difficult decision to plunge his nation into a bloody civil war instead of negotiating with rebel states.

Lincoln had power but distrusted it.  Wisely, he worried how it might affect him:

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.  Abraham Lincoln

 The adage “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” weighed upon Lincoln.  But like many leaders, he may have over-estimated his direct power and underestimated his influence.  Yes, he could commit the US to a civil war, but not alone.   Even if he could initiate a war, he could not sustain it by himself.  He needed support of the Congress to wage the war, but equally important, he needed to inspire both the population who would make the sacrifices for the war effort and the soldiers who would have to march to a what would be a bloody and cruel death.

It was a lesson not lost on future leaders.  Winston Churchill understood this clearly.  In World War II and his leadership was widely credited with the survival of Britain against incredible odds.   Richard Nixon failed to understand this as he presided over a nation dispirited and torn by protests over the US’s failed war in Vietnam.  US troops confronted a determined and ingenious opposition force that they were ultimately powerless to stop.  Nixon’s desperation to hold power in this troubled time led him to tactics which ultimately resulted in losing the confidence of the nation and being driven to resign in shame from the presidency.

There appears to be a lesson here.  You can command obedience.  You can enforce blind loyalty.  But you cannot command all that it takes to win a battle either in a war or in a campaign for the hearts and minds of a nation.  Great struggles require more than blind obedience.  They require courage, resiliency, heartfelt desire and something akin to creativity under pressure.

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” General George S. Patton

Patton realized that simple command does not bring out the true potential that great leaders must elicit from their followers.  Curiously, this type of empathetic understanding may not be learned from leading. Patton’s reflection seems to be more what he learned from his years of following the command of others.  It is a lesson that is not applicable only in the military.   In the world of politics, where command and loyalty are highly prized, the best politicians realize the need to understand those who they lead.

“You cannot be a leader, and ask other people to follow you, unless you know how to follow, too.”  Sam Rayburn, former speaker of the House of Representatives

I gave an example to my class of this principle from story of Apollo 13.  With three astronauts trapped in space and time running out, they needed a way to engineer new filters in space.  The movie illustrates this crucial moment in the story where the leader of the group of engineers throws a box of parts on a large table and holds up the filters they have in the capsule with the ones they need.  His sole instructions are, “you have to make this into this with only the things that are on this table.”

Despite the effectiveness of this style of leadership, modern business has appeared slow to learn the lesson.  Peter Drucker, one of the foremost management thinkers of our time, was often critical of management thinking and training.  He made his famous claim, that “In the knowledge economy everyone is a volunteer,” while bemoaned the fact that “we have trained our managers to manage conscripts.”

Bill Gates, who commanded one of the great commercial empires of our time realized that business leaders could not rely on power alone.

“As we look into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.” Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft

Leaders have a belief in people

When you start to consider the aspects of leadership that depend on  volunteerism, empowerment and ingenuity you encounter a symbiosis we don’t normally think about.  Not only do people need to believe in leaders – but to be truly effective, leaders may also need to believe in those they lead.

It’s not power that brings out the best in those who are led.  It may also require a belief that at their basic level, people have the potential to do more than they even know.  Even George Orwell, writer of some of the darkest books on totalitarian rule never lost sight of this.

“High sentiments always win in the end, The leaders who offer blood, toil, tears and sweat always get more out of their followers than those who offer safety and a good time. When it comes to the pinch, human beings are heroic.”  George Orwell

 Orwell’s quote could be read as simply the classic idea that leader must reach people at an emotional level or exert Herculean efforts themselves  to get the best from those who follow them.  But in that last sentence is an even bigger idea that the leader taps not only into emotion, but somehow reaches the inner greatness within people.   Do great leaders have a real belief in the people they lead?  If so, we are a far cry from the cynical view of getting “in front the parade”.   Real leaders believe in the greatness within us all:

“The task of leadership is not to put greatness into humanity, but to elicit it, for the greatness is already there.”  John Buchan, Scottish novelist, historian and politician

Personal Attributes – The Leader Must Be Worthy?

Fascinating, as it is to look at what a leader does or must do, we face some inevitable questions.  How do leaders do this?   How do they get the insight and the ability that others fail to gain from similar experiences?  Where to they get the empathy and ability to reach their followers that others do not achieve?  How do they maintain it?

It’s leads to a question germane to anyone attempting to lead a course in leadership.

Can leadership be taught or is it something innate?   We will deal with this question later in this book when we look at models such as Jim Collins’ “Level 5 Leadership”.   Collins, one of a very few who have the distinction of being both a great researcher and a writer of popular business books, asked himself the same question.   Ultimately, he gave no clear answer, stating other that his thought that the “seed” of leadership must present.

What is that “seed” of leadership?  Is it, as some would claim, a charisma – having some innate characteristic that makes you attractive to others.  Perhaps this is true.   But if you follow Collins’ research, you may find that charisma is present in some leaders, but absent in others.  In fact, his research suggests that leaders in business who have achieved the greatest results are often distinctly non-charismatic.   Charisma get’s attention, perhaps even inspire others.  But can it alone bring about the results in the way that great leaders seem to be capable of doing?

Orwell’s earlier statement talks about how leaders who offer “blood, toil, tears and sweat always get more out of their followers” that those who offer safety.  It implies that leaders not only possess, but also tap into an inner quality:

“Leadership is a combination of strategy and character. If you must be without one, be without the strategy.”  U.S. General H. Norman Schwarzkopf

If Shwarzkopf is right character provides vision that guides the leader through uncertainty and against the odds better than a great plan.  In actual fact, this principle is not new in military thinking.  Almost two hundred years ago the founder of modern military strategy said:

“No plan survives contact with the enemy.”  Helmut von Moltke 

What Schwarzkopf describes as character is the innate ability to distill complexity even in chaos to simplicity.  Leaders use this innate sense to communicate the essence of how to act in a way that motivates and guides others.   My theory on how character may be superior to strategy?  Character simplifies complex ideas to simple principles that I will later refer to as heuristics.  Great leaders take complexity and uncertainty and filter it through their unique internal lens.  They are able to then communicate in terms of principles that can guide their followers even when the leader is not present and even in a crisis.

Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate, and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand.” General Colin Powell

Leadership and Action

Character, inspiration, winning hearts and minds and communicating with simple principles – all of these are apparently important.   Yet if that were all there is to leadership, we would have many more leaders.  There are many with great vision.  There are lots of powerful communicators that can give voice to vision.  There is a much smaller number that can win the hearts and minds of others to get behind that vision and take action.  There are fewer still that can keep people pursuing and persisting, even against adversity, until they achieve the goal – the result that is sought.

Aesop’s old line, “when all is said and done, more is always said than done” rings all too true in the current age.  Results matter.  As my colleague John Thorp once quipped, “it’s not how many planes you launch, it’s how many you land.”

Thomas Edison said that “vision without execution is hallucination.”   No matter how talented or worthy the leader may be, if they cannot take vision to a result, can we really call them leaders?  Which led me to this compelling quote:

Leadership is the capacity to transform vision into reality. Warren G. Bennis, founding chairman of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California.

Now the argument threatens to become circular and take us right back where we started.   How do we tell the true leader from one who simply “got in front of the right parade”?    How do we understand that the leadership and not luck or circumstance has yielded the results?

Leaders make lasting change in events and in people themselves

In scientific terms, the proof that a experimental finding is true is that it is repeatable.   In leadership terms we might translate that into longevity.  If leadership is not luck or circumstance, it must stand the test of time.  This underlies the quote by news commentator Walter Lippmann.

“The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in other men the conviction and the will to carry on.” Walter Lippmann, writer, reporter and political commentator

If this is true, leaders cannot stand at the head of a parade.  They must help create the parade, and that parade must continues even when the leader is not at the head of it.  In this, perhaps the best wisdom comes from the ancients, illustrating that perhaps this principle is not only essential, but eternal:

“To lead people, walk beside them … As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. The next best, the people honor and praise. The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate … When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves!'” Lao-tsu, Chinese philosopher

Leaders make lasting change.   Not simply by commanding.  Not merely by communicating.  Not just by leading by example.  Not even because they persevere through adversity.  Leaders bring out our heroic nature not as a single event.  They leave us – the followers – as heroes in our own right.  We share the triumph and the accomplishment and are forever changed by it.

Leadership Defined:

That was my discussion.  We considered each individual definition and found them interesting but often incomplete.  In the end, we did bring it together as true leaders might by simplifying it to its essence.   Here is that attempt:

Leadership is about getting results via the actions of other.  The results needed to be otherwise unforeseen, deliberate – they could not be by chance alone.   It was in that light, I went scrambling through my notes and found this from a website that I had visited in my research.

“Leadership is the art of leading others to deliberately create a result that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”  Leadership Institute

It was close.  Very close.   Yet even this definition had a minor problem.  It defines leadership by the use of the word “leading”.  It’s compelling, but circular.

So I have proposed an amendment to this definition, which I will use throughout this book and which I hope those who originally crafted this definition will support, or at least forgive me for.

Leadership is the art of engaging and sustaining others in the deliberate creation of a lasting result that wouldn’t have otherwise happened.

In that stroke of the pen, or more accurately, but less romantically, the keyboard; I felt that we had conquered.  We had stripped the definition to its essence.

This definition guides but does not restrict, embraces the diversity and variety of ways in which leadership is expressed, yet brings us back to what is essential.

We were ready to start our journey.

[1] Many of these quotes are taken from an article published by Chad Brooks, a Chicago based freelance writer in  Although at time of publication, each of these will be independently verified, I have to thank Chad for the initial leg work and the inspiration this article gave.


1 Comment

Filed under Change, Leadership, Organization, People, Purpose, Social Change, Waterloo

One response to “Chapter 1 – What is Leadership?

  1. Pingback: 10 patterns of leadership that will change your business and your life

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