What are we talking about when we talk about leadership?

There is a great deal of talk about leadership lately in my circles. But it’s still a bit elusive. What are we talking about when we talk about leadership?

The Cultural Ideals. What comes to mind when you think about leadership — the charisma of a Fortune 500 CEO, the bold strength of a four-star general, the sacrificial service of Mother Theresa, the fame of celebrity, or the principles made popular by John Maxwell? Millions of books have been written and taught about the virtues of the subject and yet, in practice, the very idea of leadership can trigger a great deal of mistrust. Why is that?

The Rarely Addressed Consequences. When everything in our culture celebrates the spotlight, it’s difficult to separate leadership from the hierarchy we crown it with — it creates the notion leadership is synonymous with an achievement or climbing up the ladder of success. Fierce competition overshadows the importance of how the hierarchy is scaled and confuses leadership with identity. It also causes an unhealthy codependency between leader and follower where one decides the fate of many, at the expense of many, because the many gave permission to the one. Because of this, we’ve all experienced the harmful effects of poor leadership — the proclamation of something good traded for an abuse of power, coercion, deception, manipulation, destructive control and exploitation of authority. The person we celebrate in the spotlight can be someone who wants the position of glory more than the sweat required to actually care and serve, all because somehow we’ve agreed to the premise that power comes from a higher position rather than the character within.

The Character of Leadership. Generally, there are two types of people who want to be leaders… those who want to be somebody and those who want to do something. If we ask ourselves which one we are, it will tell us if we really are leaders or are merely pretending to be something we’re not.

If we take leadership outside of an artificial hierarchal power structure, what might it look like? Maybe something like this:

  • Leadership is about service, not rank or position. It’s caring for your neighbor. It’s cleaning the toilet. It’s being the last one to eat because you want to make sure everyone gets some good food before you can think about rest for yourself. 
  • Leadership takes initiative. It is the willingness to go first, to courageously do the right thing, and to go alone if no one else dares. It’s the internal drive that no one else can decide, create or duplicate for another person. It is a heart thing that cannot be faked.
  • Leadership is not about needing permission from “followers”You don’t need someone else’s permission to care about, serve, or love them. Of course, those you serve have the choice whether to receive it or not. But that cannot be confused with waiting around for someone else to see you as a leader.
  • Leadership knows authority comes from character alone. Authority is the moral center we trust and submit to when power, responsibility, and love collide in perfect harmony. We naturally follow those who serve and care about others, commit to taking responsibility, and have the power to follow through and deliver. Authority without trust is abuse.
  • Leadership functions as power under, not power over someone else. There is a wide gap between influence and service to others vs. exploitation and using others — one empowers an individual while the other forces submission of that individual. When all of these aspects align, there is an unleashing of power that is not threatened with others have that same power.
  • Leadership is not exclusive to men. Women have as much, if not more, of a right to lead because of their proven history of service, commitment, care for others and strength of character. None of these traits are exclusive to men — in fact, many men fail to develop such traits where women excel. Woman are equal in capacity for authority; I think it’s time they are treated with the same automatic dignity and respect we’ve naturally given to men without question.

Who wants to be a leader now?