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What is Leadership?

In business and organizational management, there are few questions with more relevance than this one.

At the NACUFS conference in early July, I was surprised and honored to hear myself quoted by outgoing President Tim Dietzler, who enhanced a casual remark I had made to him about leadership to make it sound more eloquent than it was originally.

I had repeated to him an observation many editors have heard about editorial leadership over the years, to the effect that we need to try to be careful to stay a half step—and not a step-and-a-half—ahead of readers. Here is Tim’s enhanced version:

“A visionary can not move too far out in front or it will discourage followers from believing that a vision is possible. Rather, it is in revealing the edge of the future as within reach that influences people to move toward that future confidently.”

Like I said, he made me sound much more eloquent than I am! But hearing myself quoted this way on stage made me remember another observation, one attributed to former Apple CEO Steve Jobs:

“Management…tends to be about persuading people to do things they do not want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do the things they never thought they could do.”

Everyone has his or her favorite quote about leadership. But exactly what is it? Can it be taught? Is it inherited? Is it a management skill or a philosophy or a way of doing business? And how can one learn to exercise it more effectively?

For most organizations, there are few questions with more relevance than these. As management gurus have noted with increasing frequency in recent years, organizations today are largely over-managed and under-led. Yet leadership is the essential quality that makes the difference between those organizations that move ahead and succeed and those that stagnate or fail.

In my mind, a very good case can be made for Jobs’ view, whether or not you believe he was successful in fully executing it. Management is the systematic side of running an organization, of setting goals and strategy, of allocating resources and evaluating results.  

In contrast, leadership is the human side of directing that organization, of expressing a vision of it and its objectives to others, of motivating people by giving them a sense of how their work contributes to a larger goal. Leadership provides meaning to work when, without it, work can seem meaningless.

Leadership is an approach that generates, but does not demand, enthusiasm, loyalty and respect. It is the most important secret to increasing an organization’s productivity, morale and, in the end, its profitability, efficiency and results. Even when people do not agree with the direction an organization is taking, strong leadership can make them willing to contribute fully to the team effort.

You can’t demand or buy loyalty from those on a staff—you can only create loyalty through leadership. Many organizations make the mistake of developing a culture based on the former approach rather than the latter. In the short term, they may achieve the results they seek. In the long term, they are building a flawed organization where the apparent loyalty is not sustainable.

Inevitably, the organization will show its flaws at the worst possible moment.

We tend to associate the idea of leadership with personal charisma, even though many people who have charisma are ineffective leaders. In the same way, there are many effective leaders whose personalities do not attract much attention at first, but who over time earn the respect and loyalty of their people.

These kinds of leaders lead “down” by providing an example and a sense of direction. They lead “up” by helping their own management understand a department or organization’s mission, issues and role in the larger scheme of things. They encourage and cultivate leadership skills among their own reports and over the course of a career usually produce a new generation of leaders who have learned from their example.

In the end, leadership is not about being “in charge.” It is about “leading the charge.” This subtle distinction gets to the heart of what it means to be an effective leader and what it takes to transfer your enthusiasm and vision to those on your team.

In your own role, are you “managing the system,” focused mainly on persuading people to do things they do not want to do? Or are you leading? As I said before, there are few questions in management that have more relevance than this one.

TAGS: Management
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