I often hear that leadership is greatly needed in these challenging times. But what does leadership mean? Is it a matter of personality? Is leadership defined by mission and goals? Are leaders inspirational figures who leave the nuts and bolts to others? The more we try to define leadership, the more the concept undefinable. “There are almost as many definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept,” said Ralph Stogdill, a Professor of Management Science and Psychology known for his research and publications on the Personal Factors Associated with Leadership.
The personal factors and character traits of an effective leader often stand out as the most basic element of leadership. Some define leadership by comparing it to management. The leader demonstrates moral fiber as opposed to the managers who implement those ideas with their technical knowledge.
“Leaders are people who do the right thing; managers are people who do things right,” said Professor Warren G. Bennis, founding chairman of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California and chairman of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
What is the right thing? Character in the leadership arena doesn’t just mean ethics, it means the ability to influence and inspire. Character requires personally demonstrating responsibility, fairness, trustworthiness, and courage. The character of leadership not only inspires, but shapes the culture and its morale. As President Dwight Eisenhower said, “Morale is born of loyalty, patriotism, discipline, and efficiency, all of which breed confidence in self and in comrades…Morale is at one and the same time the strongest, and the most delicate of growths. It withstands shocks, even disasters of the battlefield, but can be destroyed utterly by favoritism, neglect, or injustice.”
Eisenhower knew that leading by example is not only about being inspirational, but motivating others to take action, to follow our lead. Without followers to join us in our mission, are we truly leaders? ”Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”
Challenging times can make motivating followers more difficult, but they can also be highly emotional opportunities. The qualities of faith, hope, and determined optimism can energize passionate efforts when roadblocks appear and negativity sets in. “The communication style of leaders helps us distinguish great leaders from the wannabes. When facing a problem the great leader says, “Let’s find out” while the wannabe says, “nobody knows”. Great leaders communicate commitment while wannabe leaders make promises. Great leaders have the capacity to listen while wannabes can’t wait for their turn to talk. Great leaders say there is a better way to do this, while wannabes say this is the way we have always done things around here,”
said Reed Markham, an associate professor in communication, a speechwriter for the United States Supreme Court, and a member of the International Olympic Committee News Service.
Leaders also know that optimism is most useful when reinforced by partnerships and coalitions. Leadership does not, and cannot, work in a vacuum. Markham adds, “Leadership without support is like trying to make bricks without enough straw. True leaders reinforce their ideas and plans with strategic partnerships, alliances and supportive audiences.”
Will some people remain unconvinced, immobilized by inertia, and overcome by nay-sayers? Probably. This is why leadership must show how an idea can lead to tangible results. It’s not enough to dream. There must be a plan that is convincing in its viability. Planning cannot be determined solely by management and with no connection to leadership. Whether it’s a mock-up, a pilot project, a successful experiment, or a replicable model, leaders must help the dream come alive. “Leadership is someone who demonstrates what’s possible,” said Mark Yarnell, a pioneer in network marketing and an advocate for social networking as a force for good in the world, an equalizer, and the last bastion of free enterprise.
The ability to lead followers and coordinate diverse team members to achieve common goals is central to transforming an idea into reality. Leadership must go beyond stating the vision and mission and have a plan. Goals, the objectives of each goal, and the tasks to achieve those objectives must also be well articulated and jointly understood.
“The leader is one who mobilizes others toward a goal shared by leaders and followers. … Leaders, followers and goals make up the three equally necessary supports for leadership,” said Gary Wills, a Pulitzer Prize winning author who defines leadership more by goals than by personality.
If you put all these expert quotations together, you have a classic definition of leadership. Leaders are inspirational, motivational, and goal-oriented. Leaders combines trustworthiness, planning, and communication skills to light the path for all involved. A true leader can bring teams, partners, and coalitions together and engage them in a worthy cause.
Do today’s challenges make these quotes irrelevant and change the definition of leadership? Does the anger and hostility expressed on social media and in street protests warp the understanding what it is to lead? We are currently living in a chaotic environment where leadership is fighting over how freedom of expression, religious freedom, and freedom of the press should be interpreted. We are fighting over how history should be understood and whose historic symbols should be preserved. Many partnerships are formed primarily to further hate and teams are often directed to tear down reputations rather than innovate solutions.
I suggest that the divisive climate increases the need for leaders as defined by these experts. Snark and personal attacks lose their power over time. Inertia grows old and stalemates become annoying. Yelling and mean-spirited gestures have so commonplace that the soft-spoken wise person may soon stand out in the crowd. Think of the quiet power of Ghandi and his enduring example. The modern versions of his leadership have not yet captured the American imagination, but I suspect that they are waiting in the wings. As The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.“