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What is leadership?

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10th Mar 2014
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A question for the ages - Ken Ideus has a working definition of modern leadership. Read on for more.

A little while ago I asked a seemingly simple question: what is leadership? I wasn't looking for a definitive answer, but rather a working definition to use and relate to in discourse. In this article, I begin to define this en route to identifying effective leadership skills.

Let's begin with some context. It's often asked whether leaders are born or made? To begin to answer this, I’d like to turn to the arts. We could ask 'born or made?' of painters, sculptors, musicians, poets or writers. We could then also categorise leaders as artists, and there is a good argument for doing just that. Then when we ask the question, we ask it of all artists of all mediums. While there are 'naturals' or 'prodigies', most of the art we experience comes from an early dedication to mastery. This is a nice way of saying lots of hard work. We see the results but not the days, months and years of effort that went into it.

The same is true of leaders. Some are naturals, but most have earned their plaudits after intentional focus and discipline. What artists do, and what leaders do, is focus on creating things that do not yet exist. The poet Philip Larkin said that when you examine your life, the worst catastrophe is to find that you have only tread where others have tread before.

Let’s add on the context of organisation, with people, resources and missions. It is from this context that we will draw our first working definition of leadership: An individual is engaged in leadership whenever they are creating a future that does not yet exist.

To explore this a bit further: The word 'lead' implies being in front, and influencing those who might choose to follow. Leading tends to bring up the sense of movement toward something. This brings up another implication: leading implies movement toward a real or symbolic destination. Lastly, leading implies a motivational relationship with others. Whether we are conceiving of a future alone or with others, it only comes out when we engage other people. Appreciating all of these implications is essential to developing effective leadership skills.

So what is management? Management is less about conceiving of the destination, and more about putting things in place to get there. It is the implementation arm of the partnership between leadership and management. It's what goes between conceiving of a future and making it happen. To summarise: Management is about planning, organising and deploying the resources to create a future that doesn't yet exist.

In our streamlined organisations, most leaders are doing a combination of leadership and management. This is why I like to refer to organisational or business leadership. Though answering 'what is leadership?' is not paramount, it is important to know and to distinguish when you are leading and when you are managing. They call on different skills and capabilities and, from a communication standpoint, different voices.

This article first appeared on the Leader’s Voice blog.

Ken Ideus is primary designer and lead facilitator for the Leader’s Voice.

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