My Definition of Leadership
My definition of leadership has definitely evolved throughout this spring semester. From my preliminary paper’s definition – “Leadership is the ability of person or small group of persons to move a group or a situation towards a collective goal” – which mimicked to some degree Northouse’s (2016, pg. 6) definition – “Leadership is a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal” – I have come to realize that each leader possesses an amalgam or mosaic of leadership traits, skills, and behaviors specific to that person. Leaders may or may not think of themselves in terms of leadership models or theories, which detail the specific set of traits, skills, and/or behaviors needed by the individual to “be” a certain kind of leader. I have grown more and more cognizant that while the “great man” research literature is more or less obsolete, the current leadership literature still employs it to some degree in the description of leaders who employ a certain type of leadership model or theory. Natural or evolved leaders (i.e. those individuals who have embraced an evolution of their own leadership qualities and behaviors) seem to fit all or none of the specific descriptions provided in any given model or theory, provided that the models or theories have significant overlap between them. The leaders who seem to subscribe strongly to one leadership model or theory may indeed be natural leaders, but I suspect that, for the most part, those individuals learned how to be leaders from leadership workshops and seminars or are really new to leadership. I think the key idea here is that as a leader evolves, they cease to subscribe to only one leadership theory or model and begin to see themselves as fluidly moving between the models/theories (which they may only conceptualize as combinations of traits, skills, and behaviors depending on whether they have learned about the models/theories or not) depending on the circumstances of their leadership, the group’s identity and needs, and goal’s requirements. I believe, then, that my definition of leadership is this: leadership requires working with, for, and sometimes on behalf of some type of group of individuals for the purpose of accomplishing some goal or task.
My Leadership Vision
I believe that excellent leaders possess several traits, skills, and behaviors including, but not limited to, vision, adaptation, patience, critical thinking skills, deep listening skills, emotional intelligence, and an ability to communicate exceedingly well orally and in written form. While I know that leadership can certainly be taught, I think certain people do possess a combination of traits, skills, or behaviors that stand out and make them better “leadership material”. In my view, leaders are bridge builders (with both ideas and people), seed planters, movement and change artists, cheerleaders, and teachers/coaches. Essential leadership skills, traits, and behaviors include those listed above as well as the ability to identify and then listen closely to the major stakeholders in any situation plus the ability to lead in crises and change. The evaluation of great and/or effective leaders (which may not be the same thing) varies depending on the situation and circumstances of the leadership, but almost all great leaders have been defined as great due to their service in the midst of a maelstrom of crises.
Leaders as Bridge Builders
I think of leaders as bridge builders – those folks who form relationships to allow for a deeper understanding of current issues by everyone in the group. Leaders form bridges between individuals, groups, ideas, etc. Leaders form these bridges by leveraging relationships to make lasting connections. The relationships may exist between ideas or people or both. As such, being a bridge builder requires high levels of critical thinking skills and emotional intelligence to understand the people and the ideas well enough to form links between them. These links (or connections) may be temporary or lasting within the course of building the bridge, but the links must remain lasting (in terms of solid relationships) once the bridge is built.
Leaders as Seed Planters
Innovation is a word that’s thrown around a great deal in popular culture and in the literature. Many effective leaders are also innovators. The trick with innovation is, of course, getting lasting buy-in from assorted stakeholders. That’s where seed planting comes in. Planting seeds means communicating innovative ideas in such a way that anyone can take ownership for them. This kind of seed planting takes emotional intelligence, extremely effective communication, and a willingness for relinquish ownership (i.e. detachment). If the seeds take hold, and the person who fertilized the seed takes ownership, then the leader, as the seed planter, has gotten the longest lasting kind of buy-in possible. And for those leaders who are continually innovative, this kind of buy-in is all they really need.
Leaders as Movement and Change Artists
In a more fundamental shift from my previous leadership statement work and as a result of the University Presidents assignment, I’ve realized that the designation of “Great Leader” really has more to do how the leader managed and dealt with specific crises or entropic situations than with the leader him/herself. As leadership is often most needed in crises, it makes sense that great leaders would be defined by how they managed the crises they faced. Movement and change artists thrive on change; they are both change agents (catalysts) and supporters of change. These artists move fluidly between the four frames detailed by Bolman and Deal (2008, 2015) – structural, human resource, political, and symbolic. They use these frames to look at problems from all sides and to possibly find several possible solutions. Once these leadership artists have used the frames, they listen deeply to stakeholders so as to live inside their perspective. When the stakeholders’ perspectives match a solution or even help the leader develop a new solution, all solutions are then discussed and stakeholder buy-in is obtained. In my opinion, effective leaders are also movement and change artists. And because leadership is essential in crises, being a movement and change artist creates a willingness and a practice to visualize a method for moving out of the crises while learning as much as possible.
Leaders as Cheerleaders
Building consensus and implementing change are difficult tasks that require work. Sometimes, and especially in long term crises or to meet long term goals, morale suffers. That’s why leaders must also be cheerleaders. Leaders need to embrace their followers and the group’s goals with enthusiasm and communicate that enthusiasm in such a way that followers become enthusiastic as well. But cheerleading allows leaders to recognize when the group needs a break and when it needs to keep going. Cheerleading also allows leaders to empower the other members of the group to explore their own creative processes while encouraging the group to stay on mission.
Leaders as Teachers/Coaches
Leaders are often viewed as strategic planners. They must see the larger goal and most of the details of any plan quickly so that they can communicate the plan effectively to their followers. In both strategic planning and communication, I think leaders act in the same ways teachers and coaches do. Detail orientation is an overarching requirement for teachers and coaches; they must see all of the levels of what is going on in their classroom or field at once. While detail orientation is definitely a skill some leaders lack, a leader with significant self-knowledge will have advisors or followers who help them fill in their own inadequacies, including detail-orientation.
Teachers and coaches also have the ability to assign individuals to roles effectively. Matching the right person to the right job requires listening, critical thinking skills, emotional intelligence, and communication skills. Teachers and coaches also know when to teach with a feather or a stick, which is my “zen koan” analogy for differentiated instruction. They can motivate individuals while managing groups effectively. For these reasons, I believe leaders who embody the role of coach or teacher can become very effective leaders.
Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2008). Reframing organizations: artistry, choice, and leadership (4th ed). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2015). Think-or Sink: Leading in a VUCA World. Leader to Leader, 2015(76), 35–40. https://doi.org/10.1002/ltl.20176
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: theory and practice (Seventh Edition). Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, Inc.