The Concept of Leadership

We talk leadership all the time and everyone seems to know what it is, though everyone may have a slightly different idea. As a part of my teaching course, I do ask my students to define leadership, and get many definitions. In summary, the answer to my question is given in the lines of Justice Potter Stewart's "I know it when I see it", with a long list of names that stretch from Jesus Christ to Jose Mourinho.

While this may sound intuitive, there are a few granular details in this definition we should be aware of. Indeed, Jesus Christ and Jose Mourinho are two very different kind of persons, but even the common strand that seemingly tie them together in my students' conception - the ability to move people - is actually two very different kind of things. Indeed, I exaggerate the difference by picking two extreme examples, and this would be much less emphatic if one picks another pair of names from the list, like Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi (or Abraham Lincoln for that matter): Yet, it remains a task going beyond a merely anecdotal definition of leadership and attempt to define it as an idea.

My students are most comfortable defining it in terms of personalities, or in the absence of that option, as a position, like the President or Prime Minister of a country, or the CEO of a firm, but I still labour towards defining the idea of leadership for two reasons. One, because the great man idea of leadership essentially portrays leadership as an accident, extremely rare and often unattainable for most people. And, two, leadership in the great man emphasises leaders are born, but overlook the aspect that many people have been born with the possibilities but may have failed to achieve the required prominence. 

So, I construct my lessons in the form of stories, some concerning the great men but how ordinary they would have appeared to their contemporaries at various points of their lives; indeed, my biographical retelling lingers on the ordinariness than the exceptionalism, which I expect the students to figure out themselves. I also search for and balance these stories with other leadership stories, of less heroic people who made a difference, of accidents and events: One of my favourite story is of outbreak of Cholera in Soho in September 1854 (I teach only a few yards away from the infamous Broad Street pump and the pub named after Dr John Snow), which helped shape the sewage system in London in the later years. I talk of Darwin - and indeed he is much less known among the crowd studying business qualifications than you would expect him to be - and his grandfather, Erasmus, and his commonplace book. In general, I try to push back against the leader as a hero conception - and, in fact, leader as a particular kind of person conception. Instead, my objective often becomes centred on exploring leadership as an act, something that one can bring about in one's own life, as long as they go about it in a certain way. 

But if the leader-as-the-hero conception of leadership made leadership more of a distant act, the bureaucratic leadership, leader as a position holder, an industrial age creation, creates a different problem for the idea of leadership. While it takes away some of the exceptionalism that we need to guard against (though it does not, as the hero narratives of business press bestow these characters with a different aura), leadership-as-a-position create a different conundrum for the educator. The essential idea here is that if you become the President of a country (or the CEO), there must be a certain number of people who trust you (voters or investors), and thereby follow you: Henceforth, the idea of leadership is the idea inherent in the position you occupy, and the process of getting to that position is the process of becoming a leader. Again, the inherent limitation of this conception is really two-fold. One, it attaches the concept of leadership specifically to a domain - there are different rules of success in business compared to politics - and focuses away from the idea of leadership as a wholesome phenomena. It creates peculiar questions like whether John Terry's indiscretions with a team mate's girlfriend lessen his position as the England captain at the time, or not (apparently not, if the leadership idea is vested in the captaincy and the technical expertise to do so). Two, this also establishes an apparently false notion that there could be one given way of achieving such leadership position, despite the fact that achieving such positions may be dependent on many accidents and coincidences, mostly outside a person's control. The idea of leadership-as-a-position is as dis-empowering as the leadership by the great men.

This is indeed where the business textbooks on leadership are singularly unhelpful. They are usually in the template business, either as textbooks dispensing fixed norms under the guise of infallible research (blind to cultural contexts that underlie such research, mostly done in Europe or North America, among educated, affluent population) or as guru-speak, which promotes a singular idea as the panacea for all ills. Teaching in a business course, it is often difficult for me to steer clear of the theories such as these: Therefore, more often than not, I shall try to put these theories in context, not just exploring their underlying research contexts but also their application in the actual work contexts of my students, at which point their limitations often become all too apparent.

We would normally go through this journey - I would normally allow my students to move through this journey on their own (knowing fully well that some of them may never actually graduate through the process, unable to see beyond the leader-as-the-celebrity or the leader-as-the-position-holder paradigms). This does not sit well with the Ofsted-style quality assurance that governs the institutions offering such formal leadership qualifications in the UK, where the meaning of quality is defined in terms of output consistency rather than the variety of the journey or quality of the debate. However, I have tried to defend my ground arguing that if and when any student graduate through this enquiry, they are clear about the leadership as an idea; and besides, we must accept the validity of the other ideas of leadership as long as it appears the most potent to the individual enquirer.

So, finally, what then are the attributes of leadership as an idea? The way some of my students see it is that it is a personal ethic. The externalised attributes, such as credibility or authenticity, ever so often discussed in business literature, become far more consistent and achievable once the underlying ethic is understood and appreciated. At this point, the discussion about leadership really becomes about the qualities of the personality, things that could be learnt and practiced, ideals that could be defined and worked towards, and commitments that a person can make at any point of time in life. In this sense, the concept of leadership becomes empowering, a beacon that can guide action: This is that beautiful idea that can float anyone's boat, an exercise that is worth doing wherever one started from.  


you have an interesting blog. thanks for sharing, I enjoyed reading your posts.

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