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The word “leadership” is often used in a variety of contexts with different meanings. Adding insult to injury, many of these meanings describe very different things, like skills, specific actions, values or people. That is, often when we use the word leadership when we mean:

  • The top management of organization (as in “Leadership’s approval is required to move forward”)
  • The skills to communicate a strong vision on a subject so that people will follow (as in “She exercised leadership to make it happen”)
  • The courage to take responsibility and step up with passion to do something risky (as in “We need some leadership to deal with this issue”)

To make matter worse we often hear that “everyone is a leader” (is this really true?), that leaders are born not made, and that a community need to produce “collective leadership” to solve its problmes… I wonder why the word is becoming so confusing and what this confusion means for all of us trying to exercise leadership in our organizational life day after day…

Different Ideas about “Leadership”…

From a casual conversation on the subject with friends or in a class of an MBA course, it’s easy to verify how people ascribe to different “models” or ideas of what leadership is and what it should be like. Some hold a more traditional idea with one person solidly in charge. Others are more contemporary in their views and see leadership as shared between people.

These different models create different expectations of behaviors, values, actions and skills. So different people will call leadership different things based on their existing personal paradigm of what leadership is. They will recognize it when they see it, based on their implicit expectations.

Consider the examples of a speech given by the founder of a small company who created, owned and operated for 30 years a successful business, or the buzz in a room where a participative problem-solving session is taking place. It is often difficult for the same person to recognize both as “leadership in action”.

Person A will fully recognize the founder speech as a great way to exercise leadership, and the group session as nothing more than a nice, different way to meet; person B will see the group session as a powerful expression of collective leadership and the speech as nothing more that the expression of a charismatic individual – not necessarily a leader.

Reconciling different “Leadership Ideologies”

Those different leadership ideologies can be reconciled using the concepts of direction (overall group mission and goals), alignment (coordination of action within the collective group ) and commitment (willingness of group members to put personal interests secondary to that of collective interest and benefit). The concepts can help us with a more generalized model of leadership that incorporates the traditional leader-follower theories with more modern idea of distributed leadership.

Articulated by Wilfred Drath in his book “The Deep Blue Sea” they offer us a renewed view of leadership where “practicing leadership would no longer necessarily involve leaders, followers, and their shared goals but would instead necessarily involve the production of direction, alignment, and commitment.”

Paraphrasing Drath, the question to ask to recognize leadership in action is no more “Is what is happening in the room right now matching my way to recognize leadership?” but instead “Is what is happening in the room right now a contribution to creating direction, alignment and commitment?” If the answer to the question is yes – regardless of our idea of leadership or the way direction, alignment and committment are achieved – we might say that leadership is present. So leadership might involve traditional roles and relationships, but alternate processes might also be involved.

Some “Food for Thought” to help you better orchestrating leadership at work…

  1. Do you agree with the idea that there can be multiple ways of accomplishing the outcomes associated with the word “leadership”?
  2. What is your leadership “ideology”? What “leadership in action” are you unable to recognize right now due to your preconceived notions about leadership?
  3. What are ways to learn about those different “leadership ways”?
  4. How do direction, alignment and commitment manifest themselves in complex systems?

Good luck in all you do!