Leadership is ever-present. We experience it almost from the time we come into this world until the end. When we are very young our parents, or guardians, guide, teach, and care for us. They influence us to achieve common or at least desired goals. Teachers and coaches do the same, though in a somewhat more detached and less informal way. The same can be said of supervisors, religious leaders, and various professionals we solicit to assist us. Friends and colleagues also display leadership as do civil servants, like police officers, firefighters, and military personnel. Leadership is part of our lives and it would be difficult, if not outright impossible to thrive, or at least survive long, without it.
Leadership can have positive, negative and insignificant influence on our lives, depending upon your perspective. Similarly, some lessons learned from leaders stay with you for a lifetime, such as the way some address elders as sir or ma’am, while others fade quickly like wearing your clothes a certain way to be perceived as “cool”.
It has been talked and written about since at least the time of the ancient Greeks and very likely much earlier than that. Some who study leadership will tell you that it is learned from observing and experiencing it. Others believe that leadership is innate and that we are born with it. Another group advocates that leadership is some combination of the two. Formal theories have been devised that range from leadership being explained by a series of rewards and punishments, to personality traits both in-born as well as learned, to situational factors, which give weight to context as well as to individuals. There are also theories that seek to explain it by relationships, with power being a key ingredient, as well as many hybrid approaches.
Most will agree that great leadership has the ability to inspire, motivate, and transform outcomes from group endeavors of all types. Many civilizations, nations, corporations, groups, and individuals have benefited from leadership. Similarly, much damage, destruction, and pain has also been wrought by people exercising leadership for conquest or oppression. These days, if you desire, you can take classes in leadership and even earn an undergraduate or advanced degree in it. Innumerable books have been written about leadership, especially in the last few years, and yet we still do not really know much more than we did when we first started wondering about it.
One of my early jobs was as a dishwasher in a college cafeteria. The supervisor was a man named Rick and he led a team of young people like me by being actively involved and often personally teaching us how to complete required tasks. He did this usually with a smile and was always willing to lend a hand, whenever needed. The employees, my peers, respected him and the work was also always well done and completed on time.
Many years later, I worked for a boss who knew little about the operation and cared nothing for the staff. As far as we could tell he spent much of his time simply goofing off in his office. The decisions that he made were done with little regard for facts and the results were not given any real scrutiny. The end was predictable and he was soon out of work.
A leader that I later worked for was very obviously tired and did not want the job. However, because of the circumstances, he had little choice but to stay. The staff respected his experience and he obviously worked very hard. However, he was easily manipulated and many of the employees took advantage of this, which caused great problems for the organization.
Yet another individual I worked with was very successful at her job and made many improvements. She listened to employees, analyzed issues thoroughly, and quite obviously cared about the organization and those who were employed by it. She worked hard to enhance organizational performance and challenged everyone to do the same. She was focused more on the work and less on what was in it for her and the organization prospered under her leadership.
These types of experiences, and many more, combined with my education and training have provided me with a unique vantage point from which to contemplate leadership. These days, I really do not think any of the theories satisfactorily explain or account for all facets of leadership. This is because human behavior is complex (any mom, little leaguer, or bartender knows this) and is very likely influenced by both inherited as well as learned factors. The expression of inherited factors itself is complex and is probably affected by multiple environmental influences, in ways that we do not yet completely understand.
Additionally, the context of any situation contains a multitude of factors that can and likely do alter outcomes. In this regard, followers themselves also influence leadership through formal and informal means, though this is seldom taken into account when evaluating the effectiveness of leadership. Similarly, individual definitions of leadership are diverse and not fixed. So what defines good leadership to one person may be perceived as inadequate, ineffective, or just plain bad to another and both could be evaluated differently by the same person on a different day! Follower and leader moods and attitudes are also not fixed and these too will affect perceptions and subsequent behavior (i.e., the world looks better when we are happy than when things are not going our way).
Where does this leave us? At this point, with three thoughts:
- Leadership is important
- We do not yet really understand leadership
- That understanding leadership should be a priority for everyone
It is important to keep these in mind, because there are some who claim to fully understand it and will pass on their knowledge to anyone who will listen, or pay, for the privilege. Until we fully understand it, which may take a while, keep this in mind and decide for yourself just what constitutes effective leadership!