What is leadership?
The Management for Business Excellence course started last week with registration and induction and the intake of 24 started the first module, Creating Business Excellence on Monday. Organized into 4 teams, the module starts with 30 hours team study on 6 mini-projects.
I suggested that there was an opportunity for everyone to lead a project; everyone could take a turn in monitoring the use of time, managing the paperwork etc. No instruction was given on how any of this could best be achieved and it appears from recent blog posts that there are different ideas about leadership and there exists in some teams frustration and perhaps a little tension. So perhaps the question that arises is “What is leadership?”
Bernard Bass, a respected scholar on leadership, has written that there are as many definitions of leadership as there have been attempts to define it, and so it is perhaps to be expected that ideas about leadership differ when people join a course from different parts of the world and are placed in a team that ensures the widest cultural mix.
I have analyzed 20 definitions of leadership that have been published in journals over the last 50 years and conclude that my definition of non-coercive leadership captures the essence of all of these definitions. Leadership is the process of influencing the thoughts and activities of followers toward achievement of shared goals. This definition implies that the leadership is non-coercive, otherwise the goals would not be shared. They may be agreed due to the use of power or fear, but not necessarily agreed and I think that this is most relevant to the team situation in the Management for Business Excellence course.
There is a great difference between personal power and positional power. If someone assumes leadership of one of the Creating Business Excellence projects, the other team members may go along with that person. But he or she has not been granted positional power by the group, and I think that is unlikely to ever happen in this scenario in which teams are made up of future leaders in whatever career they choose.
Thus, unable to rely on positional power to coerce team members to follow, the leader in this situation has to use personal power to influence and this must surely start with identification of goals for the task that all share. That’s all very well, but have we got time for this? Wouldn’t it be simpler to give the leader the positional authority and let him/her get on with the task? We could do that but this would not be leadership (in my opinion), it would be headship. Headship, through positional power, can influence the activities of followers, but will their thoughts be influenced in the ‘right’ direction? Will the goals be shared? Without hearts and minds working towards achievement of shared goals, how can headship compete with effective leadership?
If as I do, you find it useful to look at extremes, take a look at any one of a number of 20th century dictators and compare their accomplishments to a thought leader such as Gandhi. I know whom I would prefer to follow.