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Can we define what leadership is, so that when it shows up we’ll recognize it?

Alas, it’s an impossible task! Such a variety of ideas exist on this subject that it seems too difficult to say something new or vaguely original about it. A quick glance at the current theories of leadership reveals a wide range of choices: authentic leadership, exemplary leadership, heroic leadership, servant leadership, systemic leadership, open leadership, resonant leadership, transactional leadership. Indeed, you likely have other items that you could add to this list.

The fable of the blind men and the elephant tells a story in which six men describe an elephant in the six different ways that they perceive it. One feels the animal’s tail; another grasps its leg; a third touches its flank. Similarly, when it comes to leadership, each theory sheds partial light, but none gives us the whole picture.

Yet our fascination with leadership is growing daily. The truth is that we badly need leaders to deal with the issues of our age, yet our world—at work, in our communities, in our politics—is empty of real examples of positive leadership.

Maybe we should start by exploring our unconscious assumptions and deeply held beliefs about this key role. If leadership is about power, why do we give our certain people power rather than seeking to share it with them? Is a leader our leader because he or she represents something important to us—our alter egos, perhaps, or some sort of collective fantasy of ourselves magnified in some way? If this is the case, what is leadership telling us about ourselves? And about the people we hope will guide us?

And what if leadership is not about solving problems? What if leaders are most effective when they ask questions rather than get answers? What if we see leadership as convening? In this case, what would prevent us all from being leaders?

And, if questions contain the seeds for lasting organizational success, how do we live in our organization’s questions? What are the questions we need to ask to create, in the words of H. Thomas Johnson, “profit beyond measure”?

Leadership lessons are omnipresent, if we take the time to access the wisdom that is present for us through the power of questions that matter. When we are able to clear away the clutter that weighs us down as leaders, we can connect to a deeper level of relationships, strategy, resilience, vision, ethics, and creativity.

We believe that when we take time to “unlearn” what we already believe to be true about leadership and fully examine our assumptions, we become deeply present, act intentionally, and generate renewed power and direction in our own lives and work. Are you ready to unlearn? What steps can you take in your organization, today, to stop waiting for leadership and start creating it?