KingChapman Blog

Defining and Using the Word 'Leadership'

Posted by Bob Chapman on Sep 26, 2018 8:00:00 AM

KC-Defining-the-word-leadership

Why does it matter what the word leadership means? What difference does it make to people who are already too busy doing their “day jobs”?

That’s a great question. Let’s see if this sounds familiar:

In business organizations around the world the tempo continues to increase to the point that it seems like there is not enough time to do the basics, much less worry about leadership. Further, the magnitude of challenges in markets and the competitive landscape are accelerating. The digitization of many industries and other forms of disruptive changes is altering the landscape. Technology, which was intended to make our lives easier, seems to have made it more complicated. There are endless meetings which, if well done, produce an array of action items. The challenge is to become more disciplined and organized in order to stay on top of things, because it seems we never have enough time.

Did at least some of those statements sound familiar? I hear them all the time. When I’m listening to executives and managers say these things, I listen patiently. Then, when the other person has finished talking, I say “Yes, you have just given an excellent description of the challenges facing management”. Then I ask, “So what’s missing?” Slowly the answer turns to, “We are so busy dealing with the day-to-day that we have little time to think about growth and innovation”. For most organizations, growth and innovation will not happen naturally. It requires attention and interventions to promote change.

In short, it requires leadership.

Leadership is not a switch

Virtually every executive and manager I work with faces this dilemma. The daily demands and travel can be overwhelming. When they realize that they need to be leaders and involve others as leaders, they understand it is not like a switch which can be turned on. For all but the most experienced in balancing leadership and management, it requires conscious thought and intention. This internal thought and intention often sounds like “OK, let me think…” and ends up with some form of the question “what is leadership again?”.

In that moment, I hope the person thinks back to basics of the word and creates for herself/himself the unique distinctions which have personal meaning. From that point the person can create or generate themselves as a leader and invent options for dealing with the circumstances they are facing. Perhaps an analogy will help. If you are in a location where a different language is spoken, you may have some familiarity with that language but most likely have not used it for a while. While you may feel awkward at first, the best option is to start speaking in that language knowing that you will make mistakes, but will eventually get better.

So too with leadership.

What I discourage people to do is remember some tip they have heard and then act on it. Seldom does that work out well. For example, a popular tip is that leaders often walk around the office or plant. However, simply walking around alone will not produce the desired effect of leadership. What matters is who the leader is being, doing and saying as they walk around which makes a difference.

Being able to think about the meaning of the word leadership is a great starting place for a person who is being conscious and intentional about being a leader in that moment in time. The challenge then is having a deep understanding of the meaning of the word leadership, so as to be able to generate conversations from it. Seems simple enough, right? Most of us, however, are confident that we know what the word leadership means. Yet digging into the actual meanings of these words may surprise you and will provide valuable insights.

Leadership is a conversation

Leadership is a conversation which has been around for thousands of years. Further, there have been exhaustive observations, research and writing about leadership over the past one hundred years. One would think that building the knowledge of leadership would begin with a clear description of what is meant when the word leadership is used. This agreement would provide a consistent base on which to build knowledge. One would think, however …

Reference to leadership is apparent throughout classical Western and Eastern writings with a widespread belief that leadership is vital for effective organizational and societal functioning. Nonetheless, leadership is often easy to identify in practice, but it is difficult to define precisely. Given the complex nature of leadership, a specific and widely accepted definition of leadership does not exist and might never be found.

Warren Bennis wrote, “Probably more has been written and less is known about leadership than about any other topic in the behavioral sciences.” 

Fred Fielder wrote, “There are almost as many definitions of leadership as there are leadership theories—and there are almost as many theories of leadership as there are psychologists working in the field”. 

Clearly, there is an overwhelming array of theories about leadership, which complicates the practice of developing and deploying leaders. Today the need for leadership in organizations is designing and implementing strategies given the dramatic changes facing these organizations.

Writing in the Financial Times, Simon Caulkin wrote a fascinating article that raised questions for European Business Schools and organizations in general. Caulkin stated that there are so many myths about leadership that it is impossible for our expectations to be fulfilled. He opened the article by writing:

Leadership is possibly the most written, lectured, TED-talked and blogged about topic in management. Companies in the US alone are reckoned to spend $14bn-$20bn on leadership development and training every year. It is a staple of business courses. Yet despite the confidence with which formulae are dispensed for success in transformational, authentic, servant or level-five leadership, to name some current varieties, it may also be the least understood. Consider: never has public trust in corporate leaders been so low. That may be no surprise. Among contributory causes to the crash of 2008, leadership failure ranks high, as it does in the rule of greed and the rise of inequality. Other leaders do not trust them: witness the increasing speed with which boards push peers out of top office.

Caulkin goes further to raise an interesting possibility “that may be because no one can pin down what leadership is”. Essentially, he asks if we do not know what leadership is, how can we know what is myth and what is reality?

“I Know It When I See It”

While leadership is essential to a company creating value, do we understand what it is? Clearly the word carries positive connotations even when not talking about people per se, e.g., an advertisement which asserts that a particular product is a “price leader”. The term implies out in front of the others. The opposite of a leader is thought of as laggard or slacker. Given this context, it is no wonder that every business and individual desires to be seen as a leader. Yet for all its “goodness”, the terms lead and leadership are not well understood and often misapplied in business. Noted leadership scholars Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus wrote:

“The wide disparity of agreement on what leadership in action looks like is reminiscent of Justice Potter Stewart’s famous comment on pornography. Justice Stewart wrote: I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [‘hard-core pornography’], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

 So, it is with leadership. It is hard to define, but “we think we know it when we see it.” This misunderstanding of what constitutes leadership is an excellent place to start in exploring reasons so many strategic growth efforts fail to deliver the expected results. We all know, of course, that there are many qualities and characteristics of powerful leaders in an organization. When executives and managers are focusing on a specific discontinuous change - something big enough to actually transform - there are particular aspects of leadership that must come fore and center in the being and acting of leaders.

In order to better understand leadership, a good place to begin is by studying the dictionary definitions.

Dictionary Definitions of Leadership

I find that getting clarity on the definition of the word is a good place to start in developing a deeper understanding, and ultimately a distinction of leadership. I will take the definitions further to identify what I consider to be transformational leadership from the Oxford Dictionary definition:

lead1 /li;d/v. (past and past part. led /lEd/)

1. cause (a person) to go with one by drawing them along. Show (someone) the way to a destination by preceding or accompanying them

2. (usu. lead to) be a route or means of access to a particular place. Culminate or result in. (lead someone to/to do something) be someone’s reason or motive for

3. to lead people to have or experience (particular way of life)

One who leads, who precedes as a guide, leads a person by the hand.

Leadership can be thought of as one who goes before the others and personally guides them to safety and success. This “personally guiding them” includes inspiring others to help in finding the way and engaging in guiding others. Given this definition, one can see the need for leadership in most organizations. This context of looking at the consequences of a leader rather than attributes of the person shapes the definition of leadership I use, which is:

Leadership is the inspired actions of others to achieve extraordinary outcomes.

Success of leadership is based on inspired actions of others around the leader. This way of thinking about leadership and developing leaders runs counter to many traditional approaches and theories of leadership which focus on the traits of the leader.

A Closer Look at Words Used in the Definitions of Leadership

I find that digging in to clarify and understand the meanings of the words used to define leadership gives additional richness. This provides a place to inquire and think from in order to deepen our understanding of leadership. In this section, we will look at the words used in the definitions given above. This will allow us to further unpack the meanings. These definitions come from the Oxford English Dictionary, which describes itself as “The definitive record of the English language”. The first definition is:

1. cause (a person) to go with one by drawing them along. Show (someone) the way to a destination by preceding or accompanying them

A. Cause

The definition of cause is:

a “person or thing that gives rise to an action, phenomenon or condition. Reasonable grounds for a belief or action.”

The word Cause tells us that leaders give “rise to”:

  • an action – leaders create action of those around them. When coordinated, these actions produce clarity on strategies, execution of those strategies and organizational transformation. Transformational leaders create this action through inspiring others. I think seeing the inspired actions of others is the hallmark of transformational leaders.
  • phenomenon – Phenomenon is defined as a fact or situation that is observed to exist or happen, especially whose cause was not easily anticipated. Successful strategic execution and transformation is certainly a phenomenon, as it is not easily anticipated. In fact, the phenomenon of strategic execution and transformation occurs only through the intention and actions of leaders.
  • condition – The actions of leaders transforms the condition of an organization, team or work group. The condition is changed so as to allow dramatic improvements in growth, innovation and business results. The intention of the leader is to change the conditions in the business so that people can be creative and innovative.

B. Drawing them along

  1. Drawing is a verb which means simple traction. To cause (anything) to move toward oneself by the application of force; to pull.
  2. Along is defined as in a continuous line for the length of; in a more or less horizontal line from end to end of; through or over the length of.

C. Show someone the way

  1. Show means to cause or allow to be seen, looked at, inspected, etc. That is to present or display (an object) in order that it may be looked at; to expose or exhibit to view. Further explanation is that show is to look at, gaze on, behold, view; to inspect, examine, consider; to reconnoiter.
  2. Way means a path, road or track prepared for traveling along.

D. By preceding or accompanying them

  1. Preceding means earlier in time; existing or happening before something else. Further meaning is That precedes something in order or arrangement; that occupies a prior position; esp. that is placed immediately before.
  2. Accompany has several meanings which provides insights:
    • To go with (a person) as a companion, escort, or attendant.
    • Of a thing: to go with or alongside; to be a partner or complement to.
    • To be present or occur at the same time.

I think this part of the definition is particularly instructive to us. Leaders cause a person (or organization) to go along with them by preceding or accompanying them. A leader must precede those in the organization in making changes. In other words, if a transformation is to occur, the leader must be intentional about their own involvement in that transformation. There is no hiding out for a leader in a transformation. Not only must the leader be involved in the change, but she or he must also do so in a public manner. How else can the leader “show the way to a destination by preceding or accompanying” the people in the organization?

2. (usu. lead to) be a route or means of access to a particular place. Culminate or result in. (lead someone to/to do something) be someone’s reason or motive for

This second definition also gives us an insight into a leader’s role in transforming a business organization.

A. Be a route or means of access

  1. Route is a way or course taken in moving from a starting point to a destination; a regular line of travel or passage; means of passage.
  2. Means is defined as, of or relating both to the means of achieving a result and to the result itself, considered in relation to each other.
  3. Access means relating to entrance or approach. It implies the power, opportunity, permission, or right to come near or into contact with someone or something; admittance; admission.

B. To a particular place

  1. Particular means belonging or relating to one person or thing as distinguished from another; of one's own; special; specialized; not general. Also distinguished in some way among others of the same kind; not ordinary; worthy of notice, remarkable; special.
  2. Place is senses relating to space or location. Also, a particular part or region of space; a physical locality, a locale; a spot, a location.

C. Culminate or result in

  1. Culminate is to reach its highest point or summit, as a mountain-chain, etc.; to rise to an apex or summit. To reach highest development or to bring to its highest point.
  2. Result is to arise as a consequence, effect, or outcome of some action, process, or design; to occur as a result to; to end or conclude in a specified manner. To become, turn out (in a specified manner).

D. Lead someone to/to do something

  1. Lead also has multiple meanings:
    • To cause to go along with oneself.
    • To accompany and show the way to; to conduct, guide, esp. to direct or guide by going on in advance; to cause to follow in one's path.
    • To guide, direct to a place.
    • To lead the way: (a) with personal object, to guide, show the way to); (b) to go in advance of others, take the lead in an expedition or course of action.
  2. Someone implies some person, someone else
  3. To expresses a spatial or local relation. Expressing motion directed towards and reaching a place or thing. a thing or person reached by some action figured as movement.
  4. Do means to perform, execute, achieve, carry out, effect, bring to pass. It implies to put or place oneself, to proceed or go.
  5. Something is defined as some unspecified or indeterminate thing. It can also be used as a substitute for a name or part of one.

Leadership is about getting people in the organization to do something. In fact, it is getting the people in the organization to do something new that will produce significant results. In leading a transformation, the people must act to produce a significant result and change the essence of their work and the organization.

E. Be someone’s reason or motive for

  1. Be has several meanings which are useful:
    • To have or take place in the world of fact, to exist, occur, happen.
    • To exist
    • To come into existence, come about, happen, occur, take place, be carried out or done; to take its due course, have the appointed period of time
    • To be the case or the fact.
    • To have one's existence in a certain state or condition; to sit, stand, remain, etc., in stated circumstances.
  2. Reason is a cause, ground, or motive. Further definitions are:
    • A fact or circumstance forming, or alleged as forming, a motive sufficient to lead a person to adopt or reject some course of action or belief, esp. one stated as such.
    • A cause of something, esp. one adduced as an explanation.
    • Of a fact, procedure, or state of things in some way dependent upon human action or feeling.
  3. Motive
    • Senses relating to inner impulses and mental activities.
    • Of the cause or reason.
    • Because of, on account of.

Let’s look at how leaders go about getting the people in the organization to act; leaders are someone’s reason or motive for. People in the organization will act, based on the leader’s being their reason and motive for acting. This is wonderful description of the impact of people around the leader being inspired.

This definition is challenging to understand for people whose primary work experience has been in companies with a command-and-control culture. For those people it is unnatural to think about a leader being committed to being people’s reason and motive for acting. It is much easier to give a command or make an order. What is required for managers who have grown up in a command-and-control company environment (and most have) to make this change is a transformation of themselves, personally.

3. to lead people to have or experience (particular way of life)

  1. Lead also has multiple meanings:
    • To cause to go along with oneself.
    • To accompany and show the way to; to conduct, guide, esp. to direct or guide by going on in advance; to cause to follow in one's path.
    • To guide, direct to a place.
    • to lead the way: (a) with personal object, to guide, show the way to); (b) to go in advance of others, take the lead in an expedition or course of action.
  2. Have means to hold in one’s hand, to hold as property or to be in possession of.
  3. Experience means the actual observation of facts or events, which are considered a source of knowledge.
  4. Particular means belonging or relating to one person or thing as distinguished from another; of one's own; special; specialized; not general. Also distinguished in some way among others of the same kind; not ordinary; worthy of notice, remarkable; special
  5. Way means a path, road or track prepared for traveling along.
  6. Life means the condition or attribute of living or being alive.

Among the tools of leadership is changing the organizational context and culture. This gives employees a particular experience and way of life at work. When this experience is empowering and focused on transforming the organization, extraordinary accomplishments will occur. Changing organizational context and culture creates a different, particular way of life at work, and clearly this happens only when a leader is involved.

Conclusion

Busy people often have to stop and remind themselves of what is possible through leadership. An excellent place to start is with the definitions of leadership. We have looked at one definition of lead, which is:

  1. cause (a person) to go with one by drawing them along. Show (someone) the way to a destination by preceding or accompanying them
  2. (usu. lead to) be a route or means of access to a particular place. Culminate or result in. (lead someone to/to do something) be someone’s reason or motive for
  3. to lead people to have or experience (particular way of life)

This definition provides an excellent starting place for inquiry into what is possible for one being a leader. Leadership causes transformation to happen. Leadership leads people to do something. Leadership is the reason or motive for. Leadership results in accomplishments.

 

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Topics: Leadership Accountability