What is leadership?

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Over the next two years, the RSA, in partnership with Power to Change, RIO and Sheffield University Management School, is delivering a leadership programme for community business leaders and will be exploring the unique leadership challenges faced by those leaders.
23 Jun, 2016

“I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?” Benjamin Disraeli

Over the next two years, the RSA, in partnership with Power to ChangeRIO and Sheffield University Management School, is delivering a leadership programme for community business leaders and will be exploring the unique leadership challenges faced by those leaders. As someone who helped Power to Change draft the tender document and assess the applications to run the programme, RSA Fellow Stephen Clare holds the issue of leadership is very close to my heart and this will be the first in a series of blogs over the length of the programme.

So, let’s start at the beginning. What is leadership? Such a simple question, and yet it has generated thousands of books and an industry in its own right. The ideas about leadership in management literature would have us believe that there are leadership traits, that there are leaders who are ‘great’, leaders who enable their people, that have a need for achievement, a certain style, interpersonal skills, and so on.  In the many courses on leadership, managers will be told that they need to be trustworthy, charismatic, visionary, and obsessed with goals. They must challenge assumptions, behave as a role model, walk the talk, and empower their people. All perhaps relevant to the old hierarchical, command-and-control organisation of the last century. But what do we know about the reality of leadership today?  What must leaders believe or know in order to influence others and create change?

Perhaps it might be easier to start with what leadership is not…

Leadership has nothing to do with seniority or one’s position in the hierarchy of a company. Often talk about a company’s leadership refers to the most senior executives in the organisation. They are though just that, senior executives. Leadership doesn’t automatically happen when you reach a certain pay grade. Hopefully you find it there, but there are no guarantees.

Leadership has nothing to do with titles.  As with the point above, just because you have a CEO or Director-level job title doesn’t automatically make you a ‘leader’. You don’t need a title to lead – you can be a leader in your neighbourhood, in your family, within a social environment, all without having a title.

Leadership has nothing to do with personal attributes. Say the word ‘leader’ and most people think of a domineering, take-charge charismatic individual – the ‘heroic’ figure.  We often think of icons from history like Churchill or Napoleon (who memorably said “A leader is a dealer in hope”) or from business like Richard Branson or Steve Jobs.  Today we see a lot of criticism of Jeremy Corbyn precisely because he doesn’t (pretend to) have all the answers.  But leadership isn’t an adjective.  We don’t need extroverted charismatic traits to practice leadership.  And those with charisma don’t automatically lead.

Leadership isn’t management.  This is the big one. Leadership and management are not synonymous.  Good management is needed.  Managers need to plan, measure, monitor, coordinate, solve, hire, fire, and so many other things.  Typically, managers manage things.  Leaders lead people.  To quote management guru Tom Peters: “Management is about arranging and telling. Leadership is about nurturing and enhancing.”

In fact, one of the major barriers to change we face today is that people think they have to wait for a leader to emerge – somebody who ‘knows better’, the ‘hero’ or traditional ‘leader’ who embodies the future.  I think the very opposite is true. Over the years, I’ve learned to define leadership differently.  A leader is anyone willing to help, anyone who sees something that needs to change and takes the first steps to influence that situation.  It might be a parent who intervenes in their child’s school; or a woman in a rural village in India who works to get clean water; or a worker who refuses to allow mistreatment of others in her workplace; or a citizen who rallies the community to stop a library closure.  Everywhere in the world, no matter the economic or social circumstances, people step forward to try and make a small difference. This is how the world always changes, with the actions of just a few people, when “some friends and I started talking.”

We have to nurture a new type of leadership that doesn’t depend on the illusion of extraordinary individuals.  Indeed, the leadership of the future will not be provided simply by individuals but by groups, communities and networks.  And these leaders must

“… work to create the space where people living with a problem can come together to tell the truth, think more deeply about what is really happening, explore options beyond popular thinking, and search for higher leverage changes through progressive cycles of action and reflection and learning over time.”


What a wonderful outcome that would be for the Community Business Leaders Programme!

Find out more about the Community Business Leaders Programme