Monday, May 17, 2010

Seriously, Does Anybody Know What Leadership Is???

Okay, I'm honestly amazed at this point.

For years, one of the main points of many of my seminars has been that most people in the business world don't understand leadership, to the point where we don't even know what it is. We don't know what leadership is. We can't define it.  You ask one executive, you'll get a completely different and often contradictory answer than you'd get from another executive.  My point has been that if we don't have agreement on what leadership is, we can't lead effectively.  I was so passionate about this that I even wrote a book about it (which can be found at several finer online retailers now!).

In the book, I took my own stab at the definition of leadership, borrowing heavily from leadership consultant Dick Knox:  Leadership is the art of motivating and inspiring a team to accomplish the goals of the organization. (and if you'd like a more detailed discussion on this, click here for the chapter from my book).  I like this definition and I think it covers it as adequately as a one-sentence definition can... or maybe I don't. I've always had a nagging feeling that I was missing something... and I looked forward to one day finding out what it was.

When I made the decision to pursue my doctorate, teach, and research Organizational Behavior at Georgia Tech (one helluva school), I thought this would be my opportunity to finally discover that missing piece of the leadership puzzle.  I thought that by having the chance to read and research from some of the world's most preeminent management minds, I'd finally find this elusive consensus on what leadership is and what it isn't.  I eagerly dug into my first research project... and discovered that these top professors aren't really sure what leadership is.

Can you imagine my disappointment?

I've learned that even the academic community is a bit mystified by the art of leadership.  A 2001 study on the core of team leadership, in a publication called Leadership Quarterly, admitted "we know surprisingly
little about how leaders create and manage effective teams."  A major 2004 book on leadership practices from the academic world laments that "Such questions as how or why leaders affect outcomes remain largely uncharted and poorly understood." In my own research, as I've reported earlier in this space, I'm examining the relationship between self-monitoring activity and leadership effectiveness.  Even in this limited area, I'm finding a clear difference on how different professors view the root of leadership. In this particular argument, one expert believes that leadership is all about building and maintaining relationships with team members, while a different but no less learned expert maintains that leadership is all about creating results.

And I wonder... how can I answer the question of whether high or low self-monitors are better leaders, if there's little agreement on what leadership actually constitutes?  Is it leader emergence (getting promoted?) or leader effectiveness (getting things done?)?  Is it relationships or results? Is it communication or detail?  Is it all of these, or none of these?

I'm also reminded of a surprisingly popular management seminar I do called "The Leadership Secrets of Scooby-Doo."  In this seminar, I have the participants (often high school or university students) come up with a list of things that make someone a leader, and I emphasize to them that I seek quantity rather than quality.  The results are amazing... I have people tell me with perfectly straight faces that leaders must be "attractive", "smart", "good drivers", "popular", "tall", "fashionable", and other things that have little or nothing to do with leadership.  The funny thing about the seminar is that the people who announce that these things have nothing to do with leadership, are the same people who first suggested them as leadership traits. The moral of the story: we have a better idea, deep down, of what leadership really is than we often exhibit. We know that we're fooled by 'false leadership indicators', and we allow ourselves to go along with it... presumably because that's what society, television, and movies have taught us to do.

In other words, if we see four people and a dog walking along, part of us will automatically assume that the one walking in front must be the leader, especially if that individual is tall and attractive.  Another, usually sublimated part of us, will know that this assumption is entirely bunk.

In examining some of the recent leadership on research from academia, I'm running into a similar problem. In efforts to show what leadership is, learned individuals point to popularity, likability, creativity, career success and promotability, technical skill, and other traits that are not directly linked to leadership.  Just because you're better with computers obviously doesn't make you a better leader.  Just because you're more creative, does that mean it's easier for you to motivate and inspire a group?  Do the most popular people really make the best leaders?

And I think back to an argument I had last year with a leadership consultant about Tyra Banks.  He said she was a leader; I called the statement ridiculous and asked him to back it up.  He said she was popular, that a lot of people liked her, that she was famous, that she had influenced many people to buy certain products or watch certain television programs.  I asked him what exactly any of that had to do with organizational leadership... who had she led?  Had she actually accomplished anything by leading a team, or had a Hollywood image and impression management team following a precision-crafted marketing plan brought about those results?  Does that make every Hollywood and music star, from Steve Urkel to Spongebob Squarepants to Kenny Chesney to Cameron Diaz, a leader?  Does that make any sense?  He wasn't able to answer that question.

This was a gentleman I respect a great deal, a smart guy whose full-time job is coaching and consulting leadership. What does this say to me?

Seriously, does anybody know what leadership is?

I think it's about time somebody figured this out. I don't know if I'm worthy of the challenge, but I intend to give it a try.

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