Strategic CIO // IT Strategy
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7/3/2014
09:06 AM
David Wagner
David Wagner
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Our Definitions Of Leadership Are Mostly Wrong

We don't have enough strong leaders. No wonder. We can't even define the term.

Business technology sites such as this one have long exhorted CIOs to take on a bigger leadership role in their companies. It's a capital idea except for one problem: No one seems to know what the heck leadership is.

There are more leadership quotes, definitions, and explanations than there are strong leaders. Before we settle on a good one, let's examine why so many of them are wrong in the first place.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines leadership as "the action of leading a group or people in an organization." No help there -- what's the definition of lead? The OED says it means to "be in charge or command of."

I'm pretty sure 21st century business leaders will find that definition lacking. Simply being in charge of something doesn't make you a leader.

Let's turn to one of the great leadership gurus of the 20th century, Peter Drucker, one of the founding fathers of management literature and theory. Drucker said: "The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers."

OK, but there's an obvious problem with that definition, and it's one we're going to see repeated again and again: It relies on knowledge after the fact. A successful leader does draw followers. A bad one loses them. It's easy to call Eisenhower a good leader, because he led an Allied victory in World War II and went on to get elected President. That's a lot of followers. But there was a moment before Eisenhower had followers where he had leadership potential, a set of skills and knowledge that would turn him into an effective leader. The trick is to find and cultivate leadership before it becomes obvious.

Consider a few other famous quotes on leadership:

The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it. – Theodore Roosevelt

Leadership is influence -- nothing more, nothing less. – John Maxwell, author of more than 60 books, mostly on leadership

Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership. – Gen. Colin Powell

All these definitions have something in common: They don't tell people how to lead. They just describe it after the fact. A leader picks "good men." Great, how do you identify them? Presumably after the good men do their good job. "Leadership is influence." Great, how does one exert influence before he or she is a known leader, or measure the impact of influence until after the job is done? "Leaders stop being leaders when their people don't ask them for help anymore." OK, so at what point did the leader stop being a leader? Clearly, somewhere before all the failure. It just took everyone awhile to notice.

[Wars require leaders -- and technology. View our slideshow: 7 Surprising Technologies From World War I.]

Let me share one more long definition of leadership, from one of America's great writers, David Foster Wallace. For me, this is the Platonic bad definition of leadership:

The weird thing is that the word "leader" itself is cliche; and boring, but when you come across somebody who actually is a real leader, that person isn't cliche or boring at all; in fact he's sort of the opposite of cliche and boring.

Obviously, a real leader isn't just somebody who has ideas you agree with, nor is it just somebody you happen to believe is a good guy. Think about it. A real leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, is able to inspire people, with "inspire" being used here in a serious and non-cliche way. A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can't get ourselves to do on our own. It's a mysterious quality, hard to define, but we always know it when we see it, even as kids.

I'm especially unhappy with this definition because it commits the cardinal sins of so many leadership definitions: It tells no one how to lead; it assumes quality after the fact; and it assumes people are born to be leaders.

People in leadership positions like definitions such as this one because it imbues them with special and mysterious powers. It helps them maintain their power because it creates the illusion that not everyone can be a leader. You are either a born leader or not. And obviously if you have risen to a leadership position, you were born with the qualities that got you there and are therefore beyond question.

Anyone can cherry-pick bad definitions, but I think I've picked representative examples. The links I've provided offer dozens more definitions that commit many of the same sins.

What we really need is a definition that states what leadership is, how to do it, and how to see it before it's obvious the job is done.

Here's a definition that, while not perfect, offers a starting point for discussion:

Leadership is inspiring others to pursue your vision within the parameters you set, to the extent that it becomes a shared effort, a shared vision, and a shared success. – Steve Zeitchik, CEO of Focal Point Strategies

This definition implies a skill set -- having a strategic vision, communicating that vision, and knowing how to delegate. It implies success like most of the other definitions, but doesn't equate that success to the leadership itself as much as to the shared vision and effort.

Still, I'm not completely happy. Its "how to" advice is still a bit vague. And leadership doesn't come only in times of success. One only had to watch the leadership of goaltender Tim Howard during the US World Cup loss against Belgium -- and hear his modest, team-first comments after the match -- to understand that leadership can come in defeat.

But for now, it's the best definition I've found in my 10-plus years of covering leadership for a living. What's your favorite definition? How do you define leadership? What are the qualities you look for? Tell us what you think in a comment below.

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David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/8/2014 | 12:28:57 PM
Re: New age motivational thinking....
@technocrati- It is interesting you mention charisma and integrity in the same point. Are you saying charisma will disguise lack of integrity? Ar eyou saying that integrity will make up for a lack of charisma? Is integrity charismatic?

I don't think we normally link the two, but I find it very worth talking about.
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
7/8/2014 | 7:18:54 AM
Re: Words are not enough
@Rich, I'm laughing but it's true.  He's not in the position he is because he lacks the skills to lead.  We may not agree with everything he does but even if you have no idea what he's up to politically there is no doubt who Putin is and his image is out there doing all kinds of things that make you say, "hmmm, that's actually pretty cool, I want to do that".  All that being said I did like the quote David included from Teddy Roosevelt The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.

This is how I try to lead, I pick people who are capable of doing the job then I give them the tools they need to get the job done and I manage resources and teams not individuals.  
LUFU
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LUFU,
User Rank: Strategist
7/4/2014 | 3:56:33 PM
A Leader Needs Adjectives
What Drucker leaves out are adjectives when describing a leader as someon with followers. Are they good? Are they bad? Are they inspiring? Are they clueless?

Then again, a good leader with bad followers won't succeed very easily either.
BenSimonton
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BenSimonton,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/4/2014 | 6:49:41 AM
Why are they wrong?
Great subject, David.

Leadership is wildly misunderstood. Mainly because the leadership industry studies what leaders do and not what followers follow and why they follow.

I managed people for over 30 years. I started by using the traditional command and control model giving lots of orders for the first 12 years thus making all the mistakes one can make. But during that time I was considered to be one of the very best and was given responsibilities well beyond my years and promoted fast.

Then I started listening to my people and responding as best I could to what I heard. Their performance started to rise. The more I did it the more performance rose becoming in 18 months at least twice higher than I had thought humanly possible. I did not need to give orders any more as they were proactively doing what needed to be done.

Years of listening taught me that leadership is simply the transmission of value standards to people which about 95% of them then use as how to do their work - how industriously, honestly, respectfully, openly, cooperatively, fairly, etc., etc.

Leadership is transmitted through the support management provides to its workforce - training, tools, coaching, direction, discipline, material, parts, information, planning, and the like.

Eventually, I became able to raise performance to a level four times higher than I had thought humanly possible because I learned how to convert followers into non-followers.

Hope this helps, Ben Simonton

www.bensimonton.com

 
Technocrati
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Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
7/3/2014 | 9:14:37 PM
Re: Our Definitions Of Leadership Are Mostly Wrong
So why is 'leader' so hard to define? Maybe there is no one definition. Maybe it's something we made up to pretend we have an explanation for the way we organize ourselves.

@zerox203    Well said,  An important aspect that I certainly didn't consider.   A truly macro view of the possible reason for this concept.

 

This Act of Nature if you will.  Mass Pyschology and group dynamics are tricky subjects, but play a large role in what is considered a Leader or Leadership.
Technocrati
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Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
7/3/2014 | 9:06:16 PM
Re: New age motivational thinking....
Interesting discussion on the topic of Leadership.  I agree that the definition of Leadership is in a constant state of flux.  And I think it is subjective as well, but I also think there are a few traits that all Leaders have. For instance:   

1.  The ability to harness the efforts of others to achieve an aim often outside themselves.

2.  The ability to influence individuals and groups.

3. Some sort of Integrity/ Charisma.  If a person is shallow,duplicitous and aloof - not many will follow and the those who do will not for long.


There is certainly more to it but I think you have to have at least have these traits as a foundation in order to ever be considered a Leader.

And last but not lest, I agree with you David, we don't have many of them.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/3/2014 | 1:55:14 PM
Re: Our Definitions Of Leadership Are Mostly Wrong
@zerox203- I think you are right that certain aspects of leadership change over time. Others stay the same. For isntance, I can't imagine in a pre-technological world, a king or any other kind of leader could have kept their job if they didn't know how to produce a vision and inspire people to defend that vision. Some of that vision, even for a CIO, is larger than the leader (the brand, the nation, the team, etc), but some of it is personally created. 

One way I know our definition of leadership was changed and continues to change in the business world comes from the influence of the military on leadership literature. Post World War II, especially, an influx of military leaders re-entered both the business world and academia. those leaders, whether they were sergents in fox holes who went back to a machine shop or academics or business leaders turned into staff officers, took much of what they learned about military leadership and applied it to their new jobs and their academic work.

So for decades, enterprise leadership was at least partially compared to military leadership (see your comment about ruling with an iron fist). Some of these elements are great. the army values team work and getitng the job done above all else. Some of it (a clear and constant chain of command) was misinterpreted or misused to create top down leadership that sapped innovation.

So not only does our definition of leadership change with technology but other influeces. I guess this was a long way of saying "you're right."
zerox203
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zerox203,
User Rank: Ninja
7/3/2014 | 1:47:38 PM
Re: Our Definitions Of Leadership Are Mostly Wrong
This is a discussion that has been going on forever, and when you lay it out like this, Dave, it's easy to see why. "Leader" is probably something we were looking to define before we even had a spoken language, way back in the caveman days, and yet it remains a hot topic for discussion to this day. Maybe a lot of that has to do with the fact that the duties of a 'leader' change as history moves forward - you mention collaboration of multiple leaders in companies, which is true. It was not so long ago, though, that a 'rule with an iron fist' policy was popular among CEOs. Maybe the definition of 'leader' changes somewhat with the times?

Then again, the definition of lots of things has changed with the advent of the internet. Collaboration is a must, and the speed of technology mandates that we change how we do just about everything. Nevertheless, we still feel comfortable using the same definition for many things (most things, actually) - for example, we use 'e-mail' when it actually has very little in common with mail. So why is 'leader' so hard to define? Maybe there is no one definition. Maybe it's something we made up to pretend we have an explanation for the way we organize ourselves.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/3/2014 | 11:57:58 AM
Re: New age motivational thinking....
@anon- Well, a few thoughts on that question. 

1) I don't need everyone to be a leader. I just think we're short on them.

2) Leading isn't an absolute state. It is actually possible to be a leader on one project and a follower on another. Ask a CIO. they lead their IT department but they follow the strategy approved by the CEO. Even if they help craft the strategy, ultimately, the final version is not their call, but that makes them no less of a leader.

3) Leading isn't commanding. It is entirely possible for a room of leaders to craft a vision together and continue to execute that vision together leading their portion of the vision. Nearly every successful company relies on many leaders working together.

I think the leader/follower dynamic is part of the problem with our definition of leadership.
ANON1236801031582
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ANON1236801031582,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/3/2014 | 10:28:13 AM
New age motivational thinking....
If everyone is a leader, who will follow?
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