What exactly is leadership?

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A question that gets harder the more you think about it

Sounds like a simple question: what is leadership? But it’s one of those things that the more you think about it the more complex it gets. Leadership is something you know when you see it, and notice when it’s absent.

And the more I have thought about it, and thought about it a lot I have done over the past year, I’ve got more and more tangled up. So below is an attempt to unwind the strands of thought about leadership, especially among Christians, and even more specifically about Christian leadership outside the church.

There are two different tendencies toward leadership I’ve observed, both of which I think miss the mark in some way. The first is that leadership is something reserved for an elite few who are in charge, this usually means people with formal positions of authority, labels and status which show that they are in charge. Whether this is politicians who are leading the country, chief executives leading companies or pastors leading churches. A leader is the person at the top who is in charge.

The second perspective is that everyone is a leader, but if everyone is leading, who is following? It also leads to a view of leadership that becomes a catch all terms for multiple different attributes, and in the process downgrades a vital and important role.

Leadership in church

A brief side note here about church leadership which demonstrates some of the complexity in using the word. We (Christians) talk about church leaders, but when we do that we are collecting up a variety of different roles and bringing them together. When there is a single person in charge of a church it is relatively easy to refer to them as the leader, the vicar, minister or pastor is in charge. But when we break down what that single leader does we then have to ask which of these multiple roles makes them a leader. Is it that they are the shepherd of a congregation, or the primary teacher, or the administrative manager, or the vision caster? Many churches have recognised these different aspects as well as the enormity of the task facing one person given responsibility for them all so there are often different people who take on each aspect. In some churches there is an eldership made up of the senior leaders who act as the primary decision making body, in other churches a lay eldership oversees the more visible ‘leaders’. If we’re looking for a single leader you either go for the person with the greatest influence on the congregation or the person with ultimate authority.

Who is a leader?

This causes me to reflect on what exactly is leadership, and who is a leader? Perhaps the first step is to recognise that leadership is not a fixed state of affairs and being a leader isn’t a permanent position. This immediately tends away from restricting leadership to formal positions because it is possible, and frequently occurs, that someone has a title which might suggest they are a leader but are not actually leading. To be a leader you have to lead.

The second step is to recognise that leadership is context specific, so you can be a leader in one place and not in another. You might run your business and be a leader there, but not be a leader in your church or in the sports team you play in on Saturday mornings.

These perspectives lead me to view leadership as quite broad, it means that many more people are leaders at some time or place. Some of these contexts will be highly visible, others will be more fleeting and unnoticed. Added to this are differences in leadership styles and the type of leadership required in different settings.

Earlier in the year I went away to Snowdonia with some friends, we were attempting a challenge walk, and I was in charge of the walk. When we were on the mountain there was little doubt that I was leading. I had organised the endeavour, I set the course, and although I consulted with my fellow hikers, the difficult decisions to take were mine. But then we got back to the converted chapel we were staying in my authority was murkier if present at all. We were a group of friends on a weekend away, I found the shifting sands awkward, from requiring organised plans and clear decisions, we now were mutual participants in a shared activity – to try and impose the same sort of leadership would be weird, and I’m not sure my friends would have wanted it!

And yet, even in friendship settings we recognise leadership. It is evidently true that some people lead friendship groups, you see it when different people organise events or social gatherings, one person may strive to gather people together with great difficulty and another do it with ease. This is not just about personality and popularity, I know I am a good organiser, I can ensure things run smoothly and with limited potential for things to go wrong, but when it comes to less formal settings I find it more awkward. I work better where there are clearer delineations of roles and responsibilities.

In the language of start-ups, what is the minimal working model of leadership? If we recognise some things as leadership and other things as not, where does the border lie, is it as straightforward as either leading or following, and in most things in life you are doing one or the other? I think there is a better way of looking at it, and it starts from recognising that we can both lead and follow at the same time.

No-one ever acts completely autonomously, we are always taking our cue from something and often someone. As a Christian I am first and foremost a follower of Christ, and while I may lead in some contexts and follow in others, this occurs within the context of following Christ. Similarly, when I lead I may well be in turn following the lead of other people. Many organisations, whether businesses, churches, or elsewhere, are built on a similar model of delegated leadership: I can have leadership responsibility at work and still be following other leaders. Leaders delegate authority to other people with the freedom to exercise it but to do so within certain bounds.

Is everyone a leader?

One of the smallest scales of leadership is leading a family, this is rarely thought of within the leadership literature, and the number of people impacted may be small, but the responsibility is significant and the consequences of that leadership hard to underestimate. It is the parents, and for some people specifically the father, who lead the family, they set the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, they model a culture and characteristics which children adopt and they demonstrate skills (from walking to speaking, from football to trainspotting) they want children to learn.

I have moved towards thinking that everyone at some point, in some way, exercises leadership, and in that context is therefore a leader. This isn’t quite the same as saying that everyone is a leader, and certainly not in the way leadership is commonly considered, but it breaks down the elite mentality that leadership is only for a special few. Further, it means that the task of growing in leadership is something that we should all give at least some attention to. For some it will be a much more significant part of the numerous roles they take on, and therefore probably require greater focus, for others it will be more fleeting, but I struggle to think that anyone will never benefit from developing as a leader.

There’s one other aspect that proved contentious when I suggested it on twitter, we have role in leading ourselves, and this may be a foundational stage to effective leadership in any other context. In this I am influenced by a book I’m currently reading on the history of Jesuits, Heroic Leadership, by Chris Lowney, a Jesuit priest who went on to work for JP Morgan before looking at what leadership lessons could be learnt from the 450 year old Society of Jesus. One of the pillars of the Jesuits is self awareness, and key to this is leading yourself – the idea is that you can only lead yourself anywhere if you are first aware of who you are and what you are doing. Otherwise you will be led by something else. I would develop this concept within a clear framework of first following Christ and within that we can know our identity and from this develop our purpose and lead ourselves in that direction.

This was contentious because a reply came straight back asking whether I wasn’t just talking about self-discipline? I think it involves self-discipline, but as part of a suite of tools which we use to get somewhere. The key to me considering this as leadership is the element of direction, we want to get somewhere and we lead ourselves in such a way to get there. (This also includes leadership to stay in the same place, especially standing firm in the face of pressure.)

What this isn’t is a description of good leadership, or even effective leadership – leadership can be effective without it being good. However, I would argue that if leadership is ineffective it isn’t really leadership. A further question which was posed to me was whether leadership is, or at least should be, intertwined with goodness and morality. I probably agree that leadership should have a focus towards the good, but I don’t think it is intrinsic to its definition, we recognise leaders in all context include when they are leading themselves, people and organisations in a bad direction.

So my holding position – i.e. one which I hold light enough to be willing to change – is that everyone leads sometimes, and therefore understanding leadership, and learning how to do it well, is vital for everyone.

What is leadership?

That’s the who of leadership, but not necessarily the what. For that I return to two terms I’ve used repeatedly above and sometimes in an almost interchangeable sense: influence and authority. Leadership is about having and using authority, and it is about influencing people. On a microscale personal leadership fits this, but I believe it also fits across the board.

Within influence and authority lie many other aspects of leadership, probably foremost the use of resources – whether that’s materials, people or institutions. I could possibly simplify this even more and say that leadership is about the use of power. Influence and authority are types of power, authority usually considered the more formal and influence the softer. This is also where the leader/follower dichotomy breaks down, exercising power can be a lonely task and requires decisions that will sometimes alienate people. If the purpose of leadership is keeping people following you then difficult decisions may be ducked, but if the purpose of leadership is to do something, and the tool of leadership is the power to get that done, whether people follow is often important but only part of the equation. This isn’t to sound dismissive, working with people and keeping them part of what a leader is doing is usually essential, but it is not the overall goal, if it becomes that then leadership becomes a popularity game.

One reason why I prefer the term power than influence or authority is that the latter are often used as euphemisms to mask what we otherwise might shy away from. Influence is the use of power, authority is the use of power. Power can be viewed negatively within Christian circles – although if we’re talking about the power of the Holy Spirit that’s a different matter – it is seen as dangerous and corrosive, we follow Lord Acton in his aphorism ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. But power is a gift, it is given from God for us to use, He gave Adam and Eve power in the Garden of Eden, Jesus gave his disciples power, and the Holy Spirit filled the early church with power. That we sometimes use it badly, is not a reason to despise it, but the motivation to see it stewarded with greater care and integrity.

The reason we have been gifted with power is to use it for a reason, and that reason is not our own greatness, or our own ends, we have power so that we can work as co-heirs with Christ, and the work that we are called to is front and central in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. We are not just killing time until Christ’s return or our death. We are part of His work to redeem all of creation.

Summary (until I change my mind): leadership is the use of power to achieve something

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2 thoughts on “What exactly is leadership?

  1. Very interesting – I think leadership is not for the elite, but also not for everyone. I know there’s areas in my life where I follow, and areas where I lead – and I’m definitely not elite!

    I think I still hold to my question of whether you can truly ‘lead’ yourself…direct, yes, but I think leadership denotes followers or supporters of the action. This has challenged me to keep thinking on this subject – I shall look out the book you mentioned and see if I’m persuaded!

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