What Is Leadership?

 

Oragami
Jules_Kitano / Shutterstock.com

Today, I’m thinking about leadership. And when I use that word “leadership,” I’m wondering if you mean what I mean, and I mean what you mean, and they mean what we mean.

You can’t just throw around words. I can’t just assume you know what I mean. Nor can I assume you believe what I believe about leadership. For sure, we cannot know that everyone in the organization shares the same understanding of leaders and leadership.

So to start, you have to create a shared vision. You have to talk about the meaning of words and the use of vocabulary. Your organization has to define what it means by leadership, build understanding and support, and perform accordingly.

In the third edition of my book, Strategic Fund Development: Building Profitable Relationships That Last, I devote an entire chapter to the art of leadership. Honestly very few original ideas—probably mostly none. But I’ve combined all my favorite readings about leadership and cobbled together my meaning.

So here are some of my thoughts:

Leadership means the willingness and ability to lead and influence others. Leadership is about learning and change, so leaders are change agents.

I’m not sure that lots of people who describe themselves as leaders are willing to serve as change agents. I’m not sure whether people equate leadership to (mostly?) change.

The best organizations are rich in leaders. This network of individuals creates a web to support your organization. Leadership acts as the glue that helps hold your organization together.

When I think of the supporting web and the glue, I think of Marian Anderson’s quote:

“Leadership should be born out of the understanding of the needs of those who would be affected by it.”

It’s tough to be a leader without followers. Or maybe not followers, but certainly participants and colleagues. Often, leadership changes from moment to moment, circumstance to circumstance. I think that’s good, albeit confusing, until we build our leadership strengths.

I think leadership exists to help accomplish group purpose. And that means that leaders are accountable to the group. Do you think your leader is accountable to the group?

I get very frustrated when I hear organizations talk about “hiring leaders with vision.” And “we need a leader whose vision will take us into the next whatever.” I realize that leaders do have visions. But I don’t think that leaders bring the vision and instill and enforce it. Instead, I believe that leaders enable the group to articulate values and create vision together.

Peter Block, author of Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest (1993), uses the concept of stewardship to alter the conventional theory of leadership. Block’s “stewardship” incorporates accountability, partnership, empowerment, and service. He notes that leadership means initiative and responsibility without taking control and disempowering others. Leaders are partners. They retain initiative and accountability but avoid dominance and patriarchal oversight.

I’m very into systems thinking and learning organization business theories. I urge you to read Peter Senge and his colleagues. I urge you to examine how systems thinking and learning organization theories can help your organization.

So what about leadership and systems thinking and learning? Leaders help individuals and organizations learn. Leaders demonstrate the value of learning to others. Leaders are consistently and constantly learning themselves. Of course, leaders are always learning from their colleagues.

I don’t think leaders are born. I think leaders are made. Situations can help make leaders and find leaders—situations like crises and challenges and opportunities and change.

For sure, we can make more leaders. Organizations can develop leadership programs and scout leaders inside and outside. Leaders can help develop new leaders.

What do leaders do?

Leaders carry out key functions and specific tasks. Effective leaders know leadership is an art as well as a developed skill. Committed leaders actually study leadership in order to improve their own performance. Happily, there’s a wealth of writing on leadership, and more written regularly. There’s more and more research about leadership, too.

I like this grouping of leadership functions:

  • People functions – relating to the people in your organization
  • Organization functions – tasks that bring people together within the organization
  • Personal functions – focus on the leader herself
  • Community functions – highlight tasks that connect your organization to the external community

In this column, I’m sharing a few of the tasks within each of these functions. But how about you reading the chapter in my book, Strategic Fund Development, 3rd edition? How about you starting a leadership program in your organization? How about gathering together a group of colleagues to read books and articles on leadership and develop your peer learning?

Selected people functions (Learn more details in Strategic Fund Development.)

  • Value individuals
  • Gather and develop others in becoming leaders
  • Motivate others
  • Enable others

Organization functions

  • Affirm values and set (and enforce) the highest ethical standards
  • Embrace and use system thinking and learning organization business theories
  • Build adaptive capacity
  • Develop the optimum organizational culture

Personal functions

  • Delegate, but don’t abdicate
  • Take risks and make mistakes
  • Welcome criticism and learn from it

Community functions

  • Ensure that your organization is relevant to the community
  • Build a network of supporters, partners, and collaborators
  • Help build the civic capacity of your community

And how about this one?

  • ·Ensure environmental accountability, e.g., build a green organization and demonstrate that to the community

So go for it. Develop your own understanding of, and skills in, leadership. Encourage your organization and your professional association to develop leadership programs. Promote leadership in all the settings where you personally and professionally operate.