We can agree that concepts such as leading, leader, and leadership are socially constructed. That is, we cannot reach out and touch leadership, but we often behave as if this and related terms mean the same to us. There are countless articles on leadership that use these terms interchangeably. This is not serving us as students of leadership very well. As Barbara Kellerman indicated in her extraordinary 2012 book The End of Leadership, there are 44 theories of leadership and over 1,500 definitions. This does not seem to point to agreement.
A key reason there is not agreement is that we are like the blind describing the elephant by touching distinct parts. Studies of leadership occur in widely varying contexts and widely varying time frames. Instead of another definition, what we need is a meta perspective that allows us to find the value added in each of these theories—in each of these definitions—while leaving the path open to additional context-dependent approaches.
The value for seeking some kind of framework that fosters agreement is that semantics plays a key role in our meaning and sense making, which, in turn, impacts what we focus on and the nature of our decisions and actions. One way to take this meta perspective is to begin with a set of high level distinctions that can be used to organize theory and definition in the existing literature and guide our research as we move forward. That is the purpose of the distinctions and the acknowledgement of contextual variables. The distinctions are like lenses and are clearly linked, which I explain further in this article.
Lets start the focus on the term “leader” as representing a role. Semantics play a key role in how we think about ourselves and others in leader roles. I would propose the term “leader” be reserved for what you, I, and other stakeholders think about who and how someone should lead. Otherwise, it is just a box that we stick people in or a label that we stick people with. I have never seen a leader walking around on two (or four) legs. It is people, individuals, and other creatures who do the walking. Individuals step into the leader role and step out again. They are in the role for the duration of a leadership moment, as Donna Ladkin explained in her 2010 book Rethinking Leadership: A New Look at Old Leadership Questions, or occurrence that is but a fragment in the life of a culture and system, certainly in a metacultures and metasystems. I find this approach freeing to accomplish such things as appreciating the definitions of leader and leading, for example, in particular contexts.
The role of leader of a symphony orchestra is both similar to and different from the role of the leader of a jazz band. We could make many comparisons. We can see what similarities and differences there are, but we also need to recognize that in the jazz band, for example, musical leading can shift considerably several times within one performance. What is the common variable? Creativity? Innovation? Musical intelligence? Any one or all, or maybe none of these in a particular context.
Who defines the leader role? All stakeholders, including the individuals who step in an out of the role. In the case of the jazz band, the stakeholders include the musicians, arrangers, record company executives, audiences, club owners and so on.
So I am suggesting that we embrace the work of many on the subject of leadership, honor their truths, but let go of the idea that we can find a formula that is going to be appropriate for all individuals, stakeholders, and contexts. Far better to focus on what are the opportunities for individuals to develop, practically, emotionally, cognitively, etc. What are the practices that individuals can choose from to foster such growth and maturity in relation to self and others. For it is such practices and their application that is part of what leads to effective leading. More about that in a future post.
Furthermore, the roles and the individuals exist in a cultural and systemic context. That, too, will be the subject of a future post. For now, I invite you to use the lens of the individual and the role in considering the phenomena of leadership in the settings you are a part of. What fresh insights might that lead to? For one, rather than focusing on the individual in the leader role, we will also include attention to the stakeholders and their expectations. Already we have a way of linking theories about effective leading with the importance of relationships, followership, stakeholders in the phenomenon of leadership.