August 27, 2006
What Is Leadership?Over the last few months I've deliberated over the fundamental meanings of a range of management and software development concepts. I'm one of those annoying people who doesn't really understand something until I can completely get my head all the way round it. Until then, I get an uncomfortable feeling like I'm in the passenger seat of a moving car that has no driver.
I derive enormous satisfaction when the penny finally drops. Like when I finally got to a satisfyingly testable definition of capability. It may well turn out to be wrong, but at least I now have a chance of finding that out. So far the definition "capabilty is the probability of performance" has stood up rather well, though. So I give myself a pat on the back and a jam donut and move on to the next management buzzword that's making me squirm...
Over the last month or two I've had a big problem with leadership. It's a word that gets bandied about a lot, and - like so much management-speak, I'm not sure any of us really knows what we mean by it. Not in any testable sense, anyway.
So I'm going to have a stab at pinning down what leadership really is, and - as always - I'm going to use a toy example to try and isolate the core meaning from the extraneous detail that often clouds our understanding of these things.
I've talked before about a game we can play using a pen and a piece of paper. You need two people to play this game. You both put one hand - your writing hand - on the pen so that you're both holding it. Now, without either of you talking, and without taking your hand off the pen, draw your dream house. Now draw a tree in the garden of your dream house. And now draw your favourite breed of dog in the garden of your dream house. After you've drawn the house, the tree and the dog, give your picture a title. And mark it out of 10.
Remember, you must not talk, and you must both keep one hand on the pen at all times.
Here's one we made earlier:
Leaving aside the artistic or architectural merits of the picture for a moment - which we will get back to at some later date - the point I wanted to make with this is that, as you'll notice if you try this game, it requires somebody to take the lead in order to produce any kind of picture at all. Somebody must move the pen across the paper. Somebody must use their brain to instruct their muscles to apply pressure through the pen onto the paper and to move the tip of the pen in a specific direction.
In simpler terms, at some point somebody has to take the lead. In this example, I took the lead drawing the box for the house, and the angle for the roof. My partner in the game took the lead with the chimney, the windows and the door. I led the dog, and he led the tree.
That's not say that at each stage one of us was doing all the work. Once a direction has been established, we both moved the pen in that direction. How did we know where the other meant it to go? Through our shared understanding of what a house, or a roof, or a dog or a tree looks like. We communicated through the pen.
And that's my simple definition of leadership:
Leadership is the act of communicating direction to others who follow
I may try to move the pen in a certain direction, but my partner may resist. If the pen does not move, does that mean I am not leading? I suspect so. I think leading and following are the Yin and Yang of the problem. You can't have one without the other. A leader with no followers is like a staircase that only goes one way. (In other words, not really a staircase).
I'm attracted to this very simple definition of leadership for two very important reasons:
1. It is testable. I can look at a situation now and ask "is that leadership?". If it satisfies the definition, but I don't think it's really leadership, then I have to update my definition.
2. It does not imply authority or heirarchy. Anyone can lead. Anyone can follow. In the game, the roles are interchangeable - like "client" and "supplier".
Leadership has three key components, namely: direction, communication and at least one follower.
We can now get down to brass tacks and start thinking about what distinguishes good leadership from bad leadership, and - most importantly - how leadership might work in different kinds of organisational structure (like a self-organising team, for example.)
But I think I'll rest my brain for another day...
Posted 14 years, 11 months ago on August 27, 2006