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Update on Leadership

Opinion Piece: Re-defining Leadership


“Leadership” is an oft quoted but usually misunderstood cliché. It is meant to awaken ideas of men forging ahead with bayonets or charging the open fields or leading a successful organization. It’s a word used far too loosely.

History has not been kind to the word “leader”. It conjures up images in our respective minds of historic or current figures that we apply this word to.

Leadership is not automatically about leading others. It can be self-leadership, process leadership, leading change, leading others, market leadership and so on. One can be a leader in their field, a thought leader, a leader in providing direction……..etc. etc.

One of the definitions of a Leader in the Oxford Dictionary is: A short strip of non-functioning material at each end of a reel of film or recording tape for connection to the spool. An interesting analogy given its un-involved or strategic nature, but, obviously needed to hold it all together.

Leadership is not a position. It is the influence or contribution one makes. It is the influence one exerts, consciously or unconsciously. It’s the contribution / impact, tangible or not, one makes on their environment, the people one interacts with, the potential opportunities one creates etc.

And that contribution starts earlier then we think. We need to look at making leadership a part of the educational curriculum. We cannot afford to wait for them to become managers in organizations to be eligible for “leadership training”. We have to train the leadership of tomorrow. Today.

Leadership is a broad subject and encompasses more than just heading a team/department/organization. It also raises more opinions and more ways people see it then there are people. Lastly, it raises challenges for many, as that word “Leadership” has its own limitations. We need to replace the word “leader”, laden with all its connotations, with the word “facilitator”, which makes it much more acceptable to the “facilitator” taking on the responsibility as well as the crowd he/she is “facilitating”.

So let’s take a look at some leadership definitions provided by leaders & great thinkers of our times and try to assess what’s missing:

Peter Drucker: “The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers.”

Far too simplistic. A new Branch head at a bank is put in command of 30 staff. He sits in his cabin & never utters a word to the men & women in his branch. By default his staff have to “follow” orders. Is the branch head really a leader? Drucker is no doubt a brilliant thinker, but his definition is far too simplistic and misses out on several other aspects that are key to complete the complex definition of a leader. “

Napolean Bonaparte: A leader is a dealer in hope”

Again, the attempts at making it concise and short leave out far too much. I could lie to my young brother and make him believe (Build hope) we are going to Disneyland. But, does that a leader make me?

Warren Bennis:Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.”

If I have a vision for a pond, and with lots of hard work I create it, am I a leader? No, just someone who made a pond. Alone. Bennis’ definition does not include “others.”

John Maxwell:Leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less.”

Minimalism is nice, but this is too much. Someone with a gun has “influence” over people. But does this influence make him a leader?

So what is leadership?

In no way a definitive one, but, a better definition would be: Leadership is a process of social influence which maximizes the efforts of others toward the achievement of a greater good. (An intended outcome).

Notice the key elements of this definition:

  • Leadership stems from social influence, not authority or power.
  • Leadership requires others, they don’t need to be “direct reports.”
  • Personality traits, attributes, or even a title, are missing; there are many styles, many paths to effective leadership.
  • It includes a greater good, not influence with no intended outcome.

Definitions by their very nature, are contextual. So giving some leeway is in order. But, to arrive at a more targeted definition, the above covers the key aspects that are needed.

Leadership may be strategic, but that does not mean it cannot be tactical or even functional. Management & leadership differences are often touted but not understood in context of their potential interdependence, albeit independence.

Having put that behind us, let’s move onto the next phase of “Leadership” which is more relevant to the times we live in.

Is Leadership being redefined?

The digital era is upon us. Agility is key. If a leader is not agile enough to move with the forces of change, they are doomed. As an example, it took the TV 75 years to reach a market audience of 50 million people. It took Pokemon Go 19 days to reach the same size of audience. The sheer pace of change is staggering, and, lumbering, slow moving organizations with layers of bureaucracy will not survive.

Digital and social awareness & presence are key, as is forward thinking situational awareness etc. Example: IBM did not see profits moving from hardware into software. It may be true that leadership basics have remained constant but everything else around it has evolved. Key competencies nowadays include empathy, emotional Intelligence, innovation/creativity, R&D, flexible work structures, ditching old performance management year end happy sheets and becoming more in the now, not simply training but upskilling / revamping competencies for the digital age etc.

These were not part of the dialogue back in the day. Leadership itself is evolving like everything else around it and without this transformation it would have serious consequences. Leaders will have to roll up their sleeves and be ready to get their hands dirty if they want to move into the next stage of corporate evolution. Inclusion is the buzz word for 2022, not diversity. “What got you here won’t get you there” is a fact.

Strategic & tactical prowess aside, the onslaught of change is relentless and increasingly constant. New developments are providing opportunities as well as challenges and the speed of change is putting pressure on limited resources to ensure we remain relevant.

There is a dichotomy here. Interestingly, we are moving in opposing directions. Digitization is moving us away from “people” and leadership needs to have more people skills like empathy, emotional intelligence and listening skills, while bringing digitization, artificial intelligence and augmented reality into the workplace.

A balancing act if I have ever seen one.

OPINION PIECE: Uzair Hassan CEO 3H Solutions Dubai (uzair.hassan@3hsolutions.biz)