Stephen Walker queries what leadership really is. Is it a thing or a process?
What is 'leadership'? We talk about it with an ease which defies our difficulty with its definition. Is it a process? Do you do 'leading', or is it a thing? Do you become a leader? What is the difference between management and leadership? Most of us have an instinctive feeling that there is a difference but the difference is elusive. If we only have a vague notion of leadership how do we go about training someone in leadership? Or is that training someone to be a leader?
Management or leadership
Instinct says management and leadership are not the same. They may be opposite ends of a continuum perhaps, but significantly differ from each other. A definition of the difference may be 'management is doing things excellently, leadership is doing excellent things'. Let me know how you define the difference. A leader is usually more visible than a manager. The leader is out in front, the manager works in the vanguard. They are both essential of course, but different at the extremes.
Process or position
Let me be definite. A leader shows leadership. Someone who doesn’t show leadership is not a leader. Leadership is a set of behaviours. Behaviours can be learned. So leadership can be learned. That does not mean everyone can be trained to be an outstanding leader. There must be pre-requisites of character. History would suggest that intelligence and a narrow focus, even a dangerously narrow focus, can produce the most inspiring leaders, and the most ardent followers.
You don’t have to go far back in history to find great leaders who, one way or another, were responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. Many great leader heroes have overcome obstacles, won battles and slain their way to victory. Sometimes the narrow focus that produces great energy allows great harm to be done in pursuit of that overriding cause.
There is no right or wrong with a great leader, only great leadership.
From Henry V’s speech at Harfleur 'Once more unto the breach, dear friends' in Shakespeare’s play to President John F Kennedy’s 'We will put a man on the Moon' speech, great leaders have called upon tremendous effort from their followers to achieve their dream.
"If followers are to hear and act on the words of leaders there needs to be a pre-existing relationship: there needs to be an awareness of the person as someone worthy of attention."
These inspirational speeches move people to achieve astonishing things. It is hard to imagine today just how incredible a dream of putting a man on the moon was in the 60s. This was mankind’s first exploration of another solar object. We were travelling from our planet to another solar body and walking on it. That JFK proposed and NASA delivered it is amazing. Awesome when you think your phone has more computer power than Apollo 11. Can you feel how inspired I still feel by JFK’s Moon landing mission?
If followers are to hear and act on the words of leaders there needs to be a pre-existing relationship: there needs to be an awareness of the person as someone worthy of attention. For these leaders to emerge from the crowd, to be worthy of attention, then they need to broadcast a vision. The vision is what inspires, enthuses and wins leader credentials. It is noteworthy that, in this age of celebrity, we fail to distinguish between leadership in one field and all fields. Why anyone should think that a pop star, a leader in the pop world, has an opinion worth airing on the economy is beyond me.
Presence, rapport and persuasion
You can train people to have presence. That is a quality that makes people aware of you, draws attention and hushes a room when you enter. There are techniques to learn to gain rapport with an audience, either of one or many. If you have presence and can build rapport then persuasion is much easier. One of the greatest exponents in modern times is President Clinton. There are several books which dissect his presence, rapport and persuasive speaking.
Have you noticed how our politicians are trained public speakers? They didn’t spend time doing that for fun. Although the lawyers have a history of courtroom persuasive argument they feel the need to develop their speaking skills. You can see the Blair hand movement repeated across politicians of all parties, all trained by the same speaking coach. You may have the best ideas in the world but if you can’t get them from your head to your audience they are valueless. To be successful a leader needs the ability to speak in public with high sincerity. This is eminently trainable.
People in high office have speechwriters. The audience is very acute and will focus on differences between the leader’s previous uttering and what is said now. Any inconsistency will harm the leader’s position. The vision needs to be consistent.
The vision should inspire. Churchill’s 'I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat' speech was pointing people at the monumental struggle ahead but also the hope of a new peace afterward. It was realistic, suggested a shared struggle and held out the hope of eventual victory.
Let me change the question slightly. Instead of asking 'what is leadership' let me ask 'how do you recognise a leader'? First, a leader shows leadership behaviour. That behaviour is quite different from normal behaviour as we have seen. Next, a leader is respected, held up as wise and can be seen and heard when necessary. Finally, leaders are associated with their organisations. Can you think about Richard Branson or Virgin without thinking about both? He personifies the organisation and the brand.
Each point relates to the leader’s behaviour. The behaviour is readily trainable if the person is able.
Stephen is a co-founder of Motivation Matters, set up in 2004 to develop organisation behaviour to drive greater performance. He has worked for notable organisations such as Corning, De La Rue and Buhler and has been hired to help Philips, Lloyds TSB and a raft of others. A published author of articles and Conference speaker, Stephen delivers workshops across the country. It is all about “making people more effective” he says. You can follow Stephen on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Blog