Throughout the world, there is a pervasive lack of understanding as to what leadership is and where it can and must be found. With the result that, very often, the best leaders in organizations are not recognized and are therefore overlooked. This is a major negative for both the organization and the individual.
Most of the confusion can be found at the very heart of the issue, right in the definition of leadership.
1: the office or position of a leader.
2: the quality of a leader: capacity to lead …
3: the act, or an instance of, leading (exercising leadership)
According to Webster, leadership is either associated with the office an individual holds in an organization, or the characteristics of the individual that “causes men to follow.” In both instances there is a strong tendency to assign the leadership within an organization to the individual in charge, the alpha person. And, in order for the organization to succeed, all others must be followers.
This ignores that fact that for an organization to be successful there must be leaders at all levels. This is organizational leadership and, at least on the surface, it is very different from how leadership is defined in many corporations and universities.
This concept that there is essentially one leader in any organization is extremely pervasive. A statement from Jack Welch’s book, Straight from the Gut is a good example of the pervasiveness of this attitude in large companies. He was talking about the president of NBC and the reason for his resignation, which was to take the job of CEO at another company.
This is a paraphrase, “I can understand his wanting to leave; he was too good to be stuck in that dead-end job the rest of his life.” So … If you’re the president of NBC, your stuck in a dead-end job? Well … to Jack, and to the ex-president of NBC, that job was a dead-end. The reason: within the GE organization there was only one alpha position, and that was held by Jack Welch; all others only existed to get done what Jack believed needed to get done. There was only one leader; the rest were managers.
This view of the world is accepted as true in the vast majority of our major corporations and, even more telling, in our most prestigious academic institutions. Warren Bennis, Distinguished Professor of Business Administration and Founding Chairman of The Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California, one of our most influential academics in the area of leadership, sees the roles of the leader and manager as being distinctly different. He states that leaders are concerned with “doing the right thing,” while managers are those who “do things right.”
His concept is that leaders are focused on the long term, change, and ends; they are the architects, the individuals responsible for inspiring and motivating. Managers are focused on the short term, the status quo, and means; they are the builders, the problem solvers, responsible for getting done what the leader has said must get done. In addition, Bennis seems to believe that you are either one or the other, that you cannot be both.
Every year Fortune magazine does a survey to determine America’s “most admired” companies, during which they often look at the leaders of those companies. In their March ’98 issue they made the following telling statement, “Every conceivable leadership style is represented by these CEOs.”
This is the pervasive view of management: that there are many different styles of leadership. This is true, if you are defining leadership as the individual in charge, the CEO, the commanding general, the president or dictator, as “the office or position of the leader.” But, if you do, you’ve learned nothing about leadership. You’ve only learned that “leaders” do things differently. What Fortune was really saying was that every conceivable management style is represented by the CEOs of these companies.
Both Bennis and Fortune got it wrong. Bennis sees leadership and management as two different roles, and Fortune defines leadership from the perspective of the CEO. In neither instance is the need for leadership throughout the organization even considered. The result is a dearth of leadership across America and throughout all of our organizations from business, to nonprofit, to academics, and to government. Caused mostly by this massive misunderstanding as to what leadership is and where it is found.
Bennis believes that the characteristics of the leader and manager are distinctly different, and that these roles are performed by different individuals. In his world there is the leader: providing the vision and inspiration, concerned with change, and focused on the long term and ends. And, below the leader are the managers: engaged in problem solving, and focused on the means and the status quo.
He is right in his contention that leaders and managers have very different characteristics—see the world from very different perspectives. What he doesn’t seem to understand is that while the traditional manager will seldom, if ever, be able to assume the role of leader, those with strong leadership tendencies can be extremely effective as managers.
The situation where individuals are exhibiting the characteristics of leadership while performing the functions of team managers is effective leadership. These are the individuals who embrace the art of leadership, who understand how critical it is to get out of the way. Either consciously or subconsciously, they use the power of effective leadership to get things done; to not only do things right, but to also do the right things.
Effective leaders can be found throughout most of our organizations, although they are seldom recognized (why they are not recognized will be discussed in the next article in this series). They are those individuals involved in organizational leadership, how to effectively lead a team of competent, committed individuals so what needs to be accomplished will be accomplished, when it needs to be accomplished.
There are not a plethora of styles in organizational leadership. Instead, there are basic principles that are critical if one is to achieve the level of mastery in effective leadership. The good news is: these principles can be taught and individuals can learn how to be an effective leader. The truth is, individuals can become effective leaders.