Leadership is not a thing

If I ask you to explain what leadership is, it sounds like a simple question, doesn’t it?

Go on, then. Answer it.

You’ll probably start to think about leaders that you have worked with, the people who led the organisation that you have worked in, or with. Perhaps you’ll think of iconic political leaders like Roosevelt, Churchill, Ghandi, Mandela. 

You could be into music and think of people like Elvis, the Beatles, Bowie and Dylan, who led music in new directions over many years.

Or leaders in sport like Bobby Moore (who happens to be my boyhood hero), David Beckham, Martin Johnson, Michael Jordan, Virat Kholi. 

The thing is, whatever names you come up with, they are all very different people and they led in different ways and to different ends. It’s hard to even think that they all did one thing, provide leadership. But they indisputably did. 

So what is it, this thing we call Leadership?

According to Marcus Buckingham and Adam Goodall, it’s not even a thing. In their book ‘Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World’, they point to this as one of the mistakes that companies (and by extension, everyone else) make, treating leadership as a ‘thing’. A thing that can be taught, that can be broken down into its components and learnt, and then magically reassembled into the complex mix of behaviours, attitudes, beliefs and principles that leaders show.

They point out that leaders are not consistent with each other. What’s more, they are often not consistent with themselves but are deeply flawed human beings. They are sometimes unpleasant people to be with, have addiction and abuse problems, are dishonest and dissembling, are unfaithful and reckless in their personal lives, or are emotional and physical wrecks. 

But there is one thing they DO have in common. They have followers.

And that’s their definition of a leader, someone who has followers.

The question then becomes, why do people follow them? The answer is because of the feelings that they create in people. 

Not just any old feeling, however, but a combination of some (or occasionally all) of the following:

  • belonging to something bigger
  • being known and valued for ourselves
  • being connected to a mission we believe in
  • knowing what’s expected of us
  • being surrounded by people who see excellent the same way
  • being valued for our strengths
  • being supported by our team-mates
  • celebrated for our wins and not criticised for our losses
  • being challenged to get better
  • confidence in the future

You see, leadership isn’t a thing but followership IS. You can’t reliably measure leadership but you can reliably measure followership.

So your role as a leader is to inspire followership, to find ways to create these feelings in people.

There’s a bit more to it that this, though. You see, leadership (which still isn’t a thing but we’ll let that go with it for now) is often expressed as a set of competences. Would-be leaders can tie themselves in knots trying to master all of these rather abstract capabilities and hold themselves back but, as we’ve seen, no leaders actually have a ‘full set’ of competences. They have an idiosyncratic mix, sometimes just one or two that they are really good at, like being able to speak in pubic or being great with  people (emotionally intelligent, as leadership gurus would describe it). They not only lack some of the others, they are often downright bad at them.

Leaders are idiosyncratic, different, spiky. And it turns out that the more extreme their idiosyncracy becomes, the more passionate their followers are. (Well, that explains Trump, right?).

So if you want to lead, you need to embrace your weirdness, your differences, your uniqueness. Stop worrying about the list of competences and find a way to lead that is an expression of you, of your personality, of your unique combination of strengths.

It turns out the secret to leading is the secret to much else in life. Be yourself. 

That doesn’t mean that you should focus on yourself, however. Rather, focus on the feelings you create in others. Inspire followership, and the more of yourself you put into it, the more uniquely ‘you’ your leadership becomes, the greater the passion you will create in your followers.

There’s no such thing as leadership but there are such things a leaders. We need you to go and be one, in your own, wonderfully different and uniquely powerful way.

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

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