Strategic CIO // IT Strategy
Commentary
7/3/2014
09:06 AM
David Wagner
David Wagner
Commentary
Connect Directly
Twitter
RSS
E-Mail
50%
50%

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.

Our InformationWeek Elite 100 issue -- our 26th ranking of technology innovators -- shines a spotlight on businesses that are succeeding because of their digital strategies. We take a close at look at the top five companies in this year's ranking and the eight winners of our Business Innovation awards, and offer 20 great ideas that you can use in your company. We also provide a ranked list of our Elite 100 innovators. Read our InformationWeek Elite 100 issue today.

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
Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
<<   <   Page 2 / 3   >   >>
David Wagner
50%
50%
David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/9/2014 | 3:56:18 PM
Re: Words are not enough
@SaneIT- A fair question, but I've interviewed at organizations where I never met a hiring manager until i was in the last 3 people or so. that seems rather powerful. 
David Wagner
50%
50%
David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/9/2014 | 3:55:13 PM
Re: Why are they wrong?
Thanks, Ben. I think you are right, but let me ask you a question about value standards. Do our values come from leaders at work or are they our personal values? Can a leader change my values or am I a fully formed person?

I get, for instance, how a leader can inspire me to be more or less innovative be empowering me and defining what failure means in an organization (less fear of failure usually equals more innovation). 

But i've been in organizations where I felt the leaders was very effective at communicating his desire to run a moral, respectful, collaborative environment where it was clear that value had not been transferred to about a third of the team. 

Was that failure on the leader's part? Was that simply failure on the part of those people not to realize they were in the wrong organization for them? Or are there always going to be people who don't pick up 100% of the values the leader puts out there?
SaneIT
50%
50%
SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
7/9/2014 | 7:11:26 AM
Re: Words are not enough
How much hiring does the HR director really do?  Where does the HR director get their orders from?  I can say for sure that I've never met an HR director that actually did the hiring.  They bring bodies through the door but department managers do the actual hiring.  I haven't met an HR director who drives the professional policies either, all of the ones I've worked with consolidate what other parts of management pass on to them as requirements.
LUFU
50%
50%
LUFU,
User Rank: Strategist
7/8/2014 | 4:24:28 PM
Re: A Leader Needs Adjectives
Spotting a good leader is somewhat like how a Supreme Court judge (Potter Stewart) commented on obscenity in Jacobellis vs Ohio, "..I know it when I see it."
BenSimonton
50%
50%
BenSimonton,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/8/2014 | 3:02:52 PM
Re: Why are they wrong?

David,

Thanks for the thanks. As to your question "Is the reason we're not good at talking about leadership in an enterprise setting because we're too busy trying to separate management from leadership?"

For managing any resource, there are right actions and wrong actions. As concerns managing people, the only way to manage them is to lead them. People cannot be directed to be highly motivated or to have high morale. But they can he "led" to be highly motivated and have high morale. People have feelings, emotions, and needs. If you treat them with disrespect by giving them orders, not listening to them, or not giving them the information they want, those actions will "lead" them to treat their work, their customers, each other, and their bosses with the same level of disrespect.

In my previous post, I stated that leadership is simply the transmission of value standards because value standards are what the ~95% of us follow. Most of the value standards in a workplace emanate from the support or lack thereof provided by management - tools, material, training, coaching, direction, discipline, information, planning, etc.

So leadership is what dictates the performance of employees, whether they are productive, innovative, and creative or not. The possible performance gain from superior leadership is about 500%, not 5% or 50% but 500%. That was written by Stephen Covey in 1992, but my own experience as an executive bears that out.

 

David Wagner
50%
50%
David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/8/2014 | 12:48:39 PM
Re: Words are not enough
@SaneIT- I like the Roosevelt quote, too. But just as a rhetorical question-- does that mean the HR director is the most important leader in any company?
David Wagner
50%
50%
David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/8/2014 | 12:47:14 PM
Re: Words are not enough
@Rich- Ha! That's a fantastic pictiure and we should use it more often in all comments. :)

But seriously, this gets to the heart of something I don't think we know the answer to. Is Putin a good leader or is he an autocrat?

Leaders get their power from a combination of skills and position and autocrats just get it from position. I think we often assume to become an autocrat in a non-royal setting, you have to have leadership skills to rise to that point. But it is entirely possible, I suppose to weild other kinds of power to get into one's position-- violence, intimidation, nepotism, luck, etc.

Business, at least, seems to be trying to divide dictating and use of raw power from leadership for more soft skills leadership-- collaboration, persuasion, etc. Is that what we should be doing or is Putin an example a CEO should take?
David Wagner
50%
50%
David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/8/2014 | 12:42:47 PM
Re: A Leader Needs Adjectives
@lufu- that's an interesting point. I suspect Drucker would say a good leader has good followers.

But this is part of the problem with our definition of leadership, right? We're always assuming leadership means quality. Leadership implies control, not quality.

We often conflate leadership and "good leadership." This is fine, but it makes it harder for us to know what we're talking about.
David Wagner
50%
50%
David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/8/2014 | 12:40:54 PM
Re: Why are they wrong?
Thanks, Ben. That's a really interesting response.

So this brings up an interesting issue for me. My first response was "he's not talking about leadership. He's talking about managing. He's talking about boosting productivity."

Then I realized that basically there's no other measure of leadership in business than talking about boosting production so of course the two are conflated. It isn't like you ever need to lead a team of supply chain managers into battle against the typhoon that's going to delay a shipment.

So here's my broader question- Is the reason we're not good at talking about leadership in an enterprise setting because we're too busy trying to separate management from leadership?
David Wagner
50%
50%
David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/8/2014 | 12:33:33 PM
Re: Our Definitions Of Leadership Are Mostly Wrong
Maybe it's something we made up to pretend we have an explanation for the way we organize ourselves.


Hrm...so Zerox203, are you saying that we make up the word leader to make up for the mental guilt we have for being a follower?

Here's an interesting thing that sort of goes with that. A study came out last week that repeated some experiments done in the 60's (with some refinements) trying to determine why people collaborate with groups like the Nazis.

In the experiment, they had people demand that subjects push a button that they were told would send electrical shocks through a patient. And some were told the pateint would even die. They discovered that the people most likely to push the button (rather than refuse) were the ones who were most likely to be described as "nice" or "agreeable" in their regular lives. Those that were consider not nice, were far more liekly to refuse to hurt someone.

No one wants to draw too large a conclusion from this, but perhaps the issue of following is a bigger deal than that of leading.
<<   <   Page 2 / 3   >   >>
Transformative CIOs Organize for Success
Transformative CIOs Organize for Success
Trying to meet today’s business technology needs with yesterday’s IT organizational structure is like driving a Model T at the Indy 500. Time for a reset.
Register for InformationWeek Newsletters
White Papers
Current Issue
InformationWeek Tech Digest - August 27, 2014
Who wins in cloud price wars? Short answer: not IT. Enterprises don't want bare-bones IaaS. Providers must focus on support, not undercutting rivals.
Flash Poll
Video
Slideshows
Twitter Feed
InformationWeek Radio
Sponsored Live Streaming Video
Everything You've Been Told About Mobility Is Wrong
Attend this video symposium with Sean Wisdom, Global Director of Mobility Solutions, and learn about how you can harness powerful new products to mobilize your business potential.