What does leadership actually mean? When we think about leadership, many people like to talk about specific traits, characteristics, or behaviors that define effective leaders. The trouble with defining leadership in that way is that those traits, characteristics and behaviors are often specific to a situation and can vary from organization to organization.
What are common across all situations? The outcomes that leadership produces. In simplest terms, leadership is about the performance of teams, groups and organizations (Hogan & Kaiser, 2005). Good leadership promotes effective team and group performance. This in turn enhances the well-being of the people being led. When we think about great leaders we often talk about what they did more than how they did it.
Based upon these insights, we can see that the traits and behaviors of leadership are best defined in terms of their outcomes. Those outcomes can be good or bad, but those classifications are simply a way to grade a leader’s effectiveness. Thinking about a leader’s effectiveness often leads to a discussion of the differences between leadership and management.
This is a very common misconception. In truth, the difference between leadership and management is actually a matter of function. When we look at those functional differences in detail, it becomes easy to see why there is such confusion. Leaders and managers are both involved in activities such as establishing direction, aligning resources, and motivating people.
An effective leader should produce the potential for dramatic change, but an ineffective leader can also create chaos and even failure (Kotterman, 2006). Taking all this into account, we can say that leadership and management are two different things. Does that mean that a person must choose to be one or the other? The answer is absolutely not.
Former GE CEO Jack Welch is a prime example of this. Of course this also means that there are some people with authority in organizations who are neither. Won’t name names here, but their stories make for some of the most interesting reads in the Wall Street Journal. The real question is how does someone do both effectively at the same time? The answer to that question is somewhat complicated and one we’ll try to start looking at next time.
leadership is defined as ...� began an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal. Most leadership definitions have an agenda. This is not to say they are bad, but that they reflect the bias of the writer. Narrow and sometimes cumbersome definitions may help to make a point or clarify what the writer considers good leadership should be, but they shortchange our understanding of leadership overall.
It is as varied as there are leaders and leadership needs. A good definition needs to allow many perspectives. It should create awareness. It should include leaders at all levels. It should raise more questions than it answers. It should lead to who, why, where, and how. Who is a leader? Why do they lead? In what context? When are they leading? How do we know? How do we evaluate it? Our definition of leadership is important because it mirrors our perspective of leadership.
Is it for a select few, or can anyone make a difference? A definition of good leadership is different from a definition of what leadership is. Defining good leadership is a separate issue. Leadership, like power is value neutral. It isn�t inherently good or bad. It becomes good or bad depending on what we do with it.
Consequently we have good leaders and bad leaders. Some definitions try to define away bad leaders as if to say, �Bad leaders can not really be considered leaders at all.� It is an attempt to define away our humanity. The problem is bad leaders are very real. They exist and they cause harm.
This cavalier approach to leadership is a disservice to the study of leadership and undermines a serious understanding of the potential of leadership for good or bad. Good leaders and bad leaders have a lot more in common when it comes to leadership than we might like to think. Being human, we have the potential to corrupt anything we touch and an awareness of this is important.
Defining bad leadership away undermines the importance of the values we associate with good leadership such as good character, humility, integrity and selflessness. A definition that allows that some leadership is bad can help to save us from our own hubris. Most definitions create an impoverished view of leadership. Narrow business-centric definitions are not inclusive of all leaders at all levels and in all contexts.