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News & Stories A longer, more complete description.
News & Stories: Features
Understanding Leadership, One of the Most Misunderstood Phenomena
January 23, 2020

The grandfather of leadership studies, James MacGregor Burns, once wrote, “Leadership is one of the most observed, and least understood phenomena on Earth."

Perhaps one of the reasons for this lack of understanding leadership is that we conflate the words “leader” and “leadership.

When we refer to “leadership” we are often really talking about only one person – the leader.

But the leader is only a part of the equation. Consider the followers, as well.  They are the all-important foot soldiers that actually get the job done.

What about the goal itself?  That is the purpose that brings leaders and followers together.  If you don’t have a goal, nobody leads and nobody follows. Likewise, the way the goal is reached may be just as important as the goal itself.  Positive ends are not justified by unethical means.

We also have to consider the environmental context in which leaders and followers are operating.  The "command-and-control" leadership style of the Industrial Revolution has little to do with the "connect-and-collaborate" leadership style of the technological revolution. Likewise, a leadership style that is influenced by Western values and norms looks very different from a leadership style that is influenced by the values and norms of Confucianism, for example.

No, leadership is much more than any single person.

We must re-conceive “leadership” as a process that includes all of these components, rather than exclusively focusing on the leader.  My co-author Gama Perruci and I make a case for this way of thinking in our book Understanding Leadership: An Arts and Humanities Perspective – we call it the Five Components of Leadership Model.

We define leadership as:

The process by which leaders and followers develop a relationship and work together toward a goal (or goals) within an environmental context shaped by cultural values and norms.
When we look at leadership as a process that includes all of these components, we start to get a more accurate picture of what leadership actually is . . . and what it isn’t.

The fact is, leadership is complicated. (Thus, understanding leadership is complicated, too.)

If anyone tells you that leadership can be boiled down to “seven easy steps” or “twelve maxims,” – or anything of the sort – they’re lying, they’re misinformed, or they’re simply selling snake oil.  Buyer beware!

In truth, leadership is messy.

The combination of all of these components:

  • The leaders
  • The followers
  • The goal
  • The environmental context
  • The cultural values and norms

adds up to more than simply the sum of these parts.  The true leader – and the true student of leadership – needs to consider all of these components to get an accurate picture of the leadership process.

This does not mean that understanding leadership is hopeless; just the opposite is true.

When we zoom out to see all of the components of the leadership process, rather than simply focusing upon the leader, we are able to see a much more accurate picture of what is going on and, in so doing, find real solutions to reaching our goals.

But first, we have to shed our romantic image of an all-powerful leader who leads his or her helpless followers to the desired goal.  We have to shed our idea that followers are simply mindless drones programmed to do a leader’s bidding. We have to shed the idea that the context does not affect leaders and leadership.

All leadership is situational. 

We have to shed our ethnocentric ideas of the way the world should operate.  The first way to do this is to redefine what we mean by “leadership.”

When we do, we on our way to better understand this often-misunderstood phenomenon and to understanding leadership as a whole.