What is Leadership?

Over the past three months I’ve gone around the country talking with young people about various topics: innovation, entrepreneurship, leadership. Most often we’ve spent the better part of our interaction talking about innovation, so I wanted to use this opportunity to talk about leadership.

The first thing to say about it is that it is a most widely misunderstood term. Many people use it, first of all, as a collective rather than abstract noun. That means, they thing it refers to perhaps the General Secretaries of the Congress Party, or perhaps the adult children of Industrialists. Still others talk of leadership as a property inhering in leaders, so if you are leader, it must follow that you have leadership. This is also a bad definition, not only because it is circular in reasoning, but more importantly because it defines leadership too narrowly. I’ll explain that in a minute.

It is told that George Washington’s mother was once asked how the General came to become such a great leader. Because I taught him to follow, she said. Whatever could she have meant? Generations of school children are taught this story without, perhaps, learning what she might have meant with this cryptic answer. I am inclined to agree with her though, that following and leading are linked together in some deep way, which is not obvious to most of us who are used to thinking of them as binary opposites.

The great Italian revolutionary and scholar Antonio Gramsci also used this term, and in a way that comes close to helping us understand the linkage between following and leading. I am paraphrasing, but I believe he said that leadership can be distinguished from domination in so far as the followers have agreed to be led the ones who are leading. Let us think on this. Unlike a unilateral situation, where someone imposes their will upon the other, leadership is rather a subtle dance where someone proposes, the other agrees and seconds and thereupon a new course of action is undertaken. Both follower and leader must attend to one another, consider what is in each other’s best interests as well as their joint interests and only then can there be leadership.

In this account, leadership does not really reside in the leader — rather it is distributed between the first and second and third and n number of subsequent leaders who are all joined in a common course of action. The leader is known simply on account of his or her being their first. Leadership, however, is experienced and known by the group as a whole. Nay, leadership is what binds the group together as such in their common purpose and action.

If you want to become a leader you must first experience it — experience the sense of groupness that can bind several people together in a purpose much larger than themselves. All the better if you experience this when you are young, in your first jobs, working with people who are skilled and who have initiative and bold ideas. These will infect you and you will come to be armed with a repertoire of ways of acting and speaking and thinking that will serve you well when it comes time for you to lead the group. But even then, think of that subtle band that ties you to the group, for that is what we call leadership.





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