I have been studying, writing about, and addressing the subject of leadership in many forums for over 30 years. While I still would not consider myself an expert on the subject — especially on whether my behavior at times measures up to the leadership test — I do believe that through experience and observation I have come to appreciate certain realities regarding the subject. I share four of them here.
First, it is vital to remember that the word Leadership is a verb; that is, an action word. Although we frequently refer to individuals in authority positions – especially senior authorities – as leaders, many who hold these positions do little leading at all. Leading, like managing, involves behaviors that others can observe and determine whether they constitute leadership or not. Thus absent leadership behavior, “leader” is not necessarily an accurate title nor job description.
Furthermore, leading requires some objective or goal, some adaptive change that aims at a positive result. Managing the status quo does not constitute adaptive leadership, nor does managing the execution of well-rehearsed , choreographed activities that everyone involved has willingly agreed to undertake.
If you want a deeper understanding of what adaptive leadership looks like — and the difference between leading with and without authority — I strongly recommend the work of a true expert I have had the privilege to work with and listen to over the years: Ronald Heifetz of Harvard’s Kennedy School. Start with his book “The practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Techniques For Changing Your Organization and the World”, available on Amazon via this link.
Second, the attitude that pervades many organizations that it is primarily management’s responsibility to lead — especially senior management’s — is often a cop-out, an excuse that allows non-managers to do nothing in the face of problems and challenges demanding adaptive change. The act of leading is an opportunity open to everybody in an organization, whether they occupy positions of authority or not. I call them potential every-day leaders, those individuals with daily opportunities to seize the initiative and lead others in pursuit of finding “ever better” ways to improve and advance every facet of their enterprise’s activities. The best organizations are those that foster, encourage and reward their every-day leaders, managers and non-managers alike. The more of them the merrier.
Third, leadership is inherently DANGEROUS because it always involves some risk. Just try asking most humans to embrace change of some kind, to adopt new ways of doing something, to stop doing something they have grown comfortable with, or to undertake something that will be hard and outside their comfort zones and see if they will comply without resistance.
Exercising leadership always risks push-back, resistance active and passive, unpopularity, and sometimes the harsh opprobrium of others. Rustle feathers in many organizations and you will often be told to knock it off. Try to change some process and discover you have irritated a superior who invented it. Suggest a better way to do something and be forcefully told there is nothing wrong with the way we do it now. Become a bothersome change agent and perhaps put your next step up the career ladder at some risk. The bigger the change you seek, the greater the danger and risk of resistance, opposition and potential negative consequences involved.
Consequently, leadership is not for the risk averse or faint of heart. Large or small, the danger and risk involved in being a leader cannot be escaped.
Therefore and finally, because of the dangers and risks involved, being a leader always requires some degree of COURAGE. I recently had an opportunity to ask a group of every-day leaders why they did what they did in the face of potential negative blowback? “We did it anyway” was their reply. And therein lies the essence of leading.
Rarely are true leaders commanded to lead. The initiatives they undertake are their own. They understand there are risks, that an occasional knuckle wrapping comes with the territory and that they will need persistence if they are to achieve their goal. Leading by its nature is proactive, not reactive. It is action oriented; do, fix, do, fix, do, fix and keep pressing on.
Every-day leaders understand that most organizations have a bureaucracy and a sometimes constraining chain of command. But their every-day leaders think outside the box and look for ways around obstructing managers and the other obstacles they encounter. Every day leaders build goal-directed coalitions of like-minded colleagues because they recognize there is strength in numbers.
Bottom line, every-day leaders face their fears and act anyway.