Monday, July 26, 2010

Does Anybody Know What Leadership Is? Strikes Back

A couple of months ago in these very pages I shared my frustration with our inability to determine what leadership actually is, with the "our" in that sentence being the academic and business body public.  Apparently the question stumped my massive readership, since there were no comments to the post.  I'm still about four weeks away from starting my organizational behavior studies at Georgia Tech, but as I've trained leadership at a few events recently, I've continued to ponder the topic.  And I've been approached with a possible answer to the question of why we don't know what leadership is:  because there is no answer.

I do a workshop in which I ask my audience to tell me which of the five members of the Scooby-Doo gang were the leader of the group: Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy, or Scooby himself.  Sometimes a participant raises his or her hand and tells me shyly that there was no one leader; they were all leaders.  Since this doesn't play into the structure of the seminar and the path I want to lead my audience down, I usually raise an eyebrow and give the cocky answer, "You know, we have a word for answers like that back home in Louisiana.  We call them 'cop-outs'." (for more on the Scooby topic, click here)  I believe this statement, that perhaps there is no definition of leadership, is a cop-out.  Let me try to prove it.

Many have tried to convince me that there is no true meaning of leadership, and I admit they raised some interesting points.  There isn't just one right way to lead, they said... so how could there be one definition?  Very different people lead in very different ways, and yet they're still successful... so how could there be just one meaning?  If there was just one simple definition of leadership, surely someone would have deciphered it by now, they said... since that apparently hasn't been done, there must logically be no one definition of leadership.

All interesting points, but somewhat misleading, I reply.  As I've discussed in several articles and books, there is little doubt that leadership is an art and not a science.  The difference is simple: there is just one correct answer in science, and many correct answers in art.  There are multiple ways to write a great song, for instance, but only one correct answer to the question of what is two plus two (unless, of course, you're rounding the "two" in both cases from 2.49, in which case the answer to "what is two plus two" is "about five").

Music is art. Math is science. Similarly, leadership is generally considered to be an art - a topic without one simple and clear answer of correctness.  That's what the questioners two paragraphs ago were implying: there is no one right answer.  However, I argue that leadership is an art with scientific aspects, just as virtually all art has elements of science within it.

Rhythm, for instance, is a critical aspect of music, and rhythm can be broken down into several right-or-wrong, scientific rules.  There are certain beats that are inherently pleasing and musical, while other beat-patterns do not work as well to the human ear and do not support most compositions.  The chef knows that certain flavors and ingredients do not work well together, no matter how artistically satisfying they may be.  The television show director knows from the science of pacing and timing that the show should break to commercial at the moment of highest tension and suspense, just as the motion picture director knows that in the absence of commercial breaks, the movie's tension must ebb, flow, and build to a crescendo at the movie's climax.  All of this is science.

There is such a thing as leadership science.  I've taken courses in it, and I've studied it.  Some of it is what people think of when they think of leadership, and some isn't.  For instance, part of leadership might encompass logistics, or deciding how best to coordinate activities of supply movement.  There's a science to that.  Another part of leadership is certainly talent and personnel delegation, and there is absolutely a science to that.  Say you're a leader managing the team of Kenny Chesney, Bill Gates, and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew.  You have three different tasks to delegate to your team:  fix the boss's computer, create a pair of stilt-shoes, and sing to a group of high school girls in Mississippi.  Is there one right way to delegate your tasks?

Probably, yes.  Bill should debug, Bunsen should invent, and Kenny should sing (assuming the students sadly appreciate that type of music).  There is one and only one most effective, most efficient way to delegate those tasks.  Any other answer results in lost productivity or poor results, which is bad leadership.  Thus, there is one and only one correct answer to this particular leadership question.  And that means that at least part of leadership is in fact science.

That's just one example; there's a lot of science in leadership.  There are certain things leaders can not do if they want to lead their teams effectively, like publicly and unfairly disparaging team members, abandoning the organization's core mission, or running around in circles naked pretending to be a gazelle.  None of this gets things done, motivates, inspires, or builds for the future.  It can't be leadership; there is a simple right and wrong here.

So if parts of leadership are in fact a science, then we can teach the parts that are right and wrong.  We can also use that knowledge to make educated guesses about the more artistic parts of leadership, and build on them to create overall leadership mindsets and plans.  And through observation and experiment, we can identify the real cause and effect of what great managers do to make great organizations prosper.  That's why I believe that leadership does have a definition and a set of rules that can be discovered... it's just not necessarily a simple definition or set of rules!


  1. If we accept that leadership is art with science based elements, then we can assume that there are some fundamental rules or facts that cannot be denied. The Laws of Leadership.

    But with art, what often happens is that we are taught that there are no rules, or at least we should embrace new ideas.

    Let's say that a fundamental law of leadership is that it's never a good idea to yell at your workers. While this may work for a CEO or an accounting firm, a drill sargent might find it effective. Which would mean that even the leadership laws could be broken if executed correctly at the right time.

    I don't think there are a set of rules for leadership, but rather a list of guidlines that can be found. Guidelines for each particular leadership role, and the decisions that they must make.

  2. Okay, then... what's the difference between a guideline and a rule?

    See, I'd disagree with any fundamental law of leadership that states that it's never a good idea to yell at your team. It's often a good idea to yell at your team, I think. It's never a good idea to gossip about your team behind their backs, though... that's a rule. Or is it a guideline?

    I think there are both indisputable laws and general guidelines for different styles of leadership. Some of the guidelines for different styles might contradict each other, but the laws are eternal. That's just a theory on my part, though!

  3. Maybe leadership is like obscenity. You can't define it, but you know it when you see it.

  4. And just like obscenity, if you ever really nail it, you're bound to piss someone off?