Essence of Leadership

What is the nature of the leadership theories that have been developed by business-minded academics that have advanced the body of knowledge and informed leader preparation and practice?  It appears that to a great extent the theories have been attempts to not just offer descriptive but also prescriptive knowledge of leading and leadership.


Guided by Perspective

The system of orientation (or worldview) that is widely operative in our modern time, and that informs the perspective of theorist, includes the belief that reality is comprised of separate, discrete and independent entities moving about that at times bump into each other in pursuit of self-interest.


Metaphorically the world therefore is a universe-sized billiard ball table whereupon a great number of billiard balls (i.e. individuals) move about, and who now and then bump into each other.  In this billiard-like world there are cue balls (individuals in-authority) seeking to influence the movement of billiard balls (other individuals over whom their authority reigns) in service to their self-interest.  Those who realize success in this effort are frequently labeled leaders.  The use of the term leadership is often synonymous with CEO, and other top management positions, and the focus of research among business-minded academics, as well as in the popular business periodicals.


The many who haven’t realized such (positional) success but yet aspire to do so, look to these movers and shakers searching for the cause (i.e. trait, technique, skill) of their influence over others.  Acquiring a leadership position is almost akin to the Holy Grail, profit. Consequently the question often raised is, how does one assume/gain a leadership role/position?  Accordingly we have for quite some time sought to know more about what makes a top executive; metaphorically, how do billiard balls become cue balls?


Viewing leadership as position dependent, directs action to either the one holding the position (aka the leader) or to the many to be acted upon (aka the followers)—it’s either on the larger cue ball or the common billiard balls, purely object on object.


We Have Theory

Generally, this has produced two categories or types of leadership theory, transactional and transformational.  In the transactional view the focus is largely on the led in the exchange between the leader and the led.  Fundamentally the transaction is about the leader presenting the led with the prospect of meeting an unmet need or desire in return for doing what the leader wishes. Basically the transaction (the cue bumping the billiard ball) involves the proposition, if you do this then you will get that.  As Herzberg might say, the leader administers a psychologically focused KITA in the transaction to instigate the desired behavior.


The other popular, though less practiced, style of leadership is transformational, which doesn’t focus so much on the follower’s needs/wants as the lever as it does on the leader finding a connection with the followers that both can find motivating and morally appropriate.  Practically this approach tends to point to leader characteristics for which followers are believed to have an affinity.  In this regard the charisma of the leader has tended to attract most attention.  Even though transformational characteristics/factors include supporting follower’s growth and moral character, the importance given to charisma is not surprising given the socio-cultural bent for outward image and other superficial attachments.


Whether transactional or transformational, the focus is on object behavior or outward characteristics. Why?  Because in the words of Lord Kelvin “to know is to measure!”  After all we must have metrics if we are to know about leaders and leadership!  As a result what we have are entities interacting in a less than human mechanistic way realizing movement in a desired direction.


Context: Personhood Not Position

What we don’t have are human beings engaging in humanly productive relationship affecting the actualization of human potential.  It seems we’ve become so engrossed in maximizing profit (rather than progress) and correspondingly in the pursuit of describing and prescribing leadership through some form of objective measurement that we have forgotten the foundational essential elemental nature of leadership.


Position-to-position, objectified individual-to-objectified individual can’t possibly form a ‘We’—two ‘its’ don’t make a ‘We’.  Hence the leadership experience does not emerge between object-to-object, such as boss-to-subordinate, or leader-to-follower or manager-to-employee or CEO-to-the flock.   One must develop and express his/her personhood in order to participate in the emergence of the leadership experience, doing otherwise is mere folly and an affront to the human spirit.


Leadership is a human experience that emerges from two or more people in human relationship—not economic relationship, not quid pro quo relationship, not enlightened self-interest relationship but person-to-person relationship.  A human relationship requires an act of humanness of subject-to-subject, human being-to-human being.  It is an “I” relating to an “I” in the process of forming a “We”—a partnership among equals—wherein each “I” is acting congruent with his/her “I-We” nature.


Leadership emerges from the expression of selflessness and in this regard it requires courage—it requires self-leadership.   As previously discussed, we each can demonstrate the courage of self-leadership by embracing the challenge to develop our humanness, our authenticity as a human being.   This requires us to live life consciously and not merely habitually.


Any and all talk of leadership in the context of position or possession is merely euphemism for the one-in-charge—the same old boss dressed in a different suit.  Productive human leadership doesn’t exist with power over others but instead emerges in and through acts of humanness.  So focusing on those at the upper levels of the hierarchy with the intent of advancing knowledge about leadership can only bring confusion, not clarity and understanding.  No wonder leadership is so rare most of our theories and models that inform preparation and practice miss the essence!




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