During a recent conference workshop, I asked the attendees to make a list of the qualities, characteristics, and responsibilities of a leader/leadership.
Here’s a sampling of what they came up with:
- knowing how to listen
- good communication
- takes responsibility
- has a clear goal
- influencing others
I then had two simple follow-up questions: (1) Does this list form an exclusive definition of ‘leadership’? (2) Which of these attributes wouldn’t you want to have in any member of your team? Are any of these qualities things that you wouldn’t want to see in followers as well?
Anecdotal wisdom says that there are as many definitions of leadership as there are books written on the subject; there is certainly a great breadth of characteristics that we associate with the role of leader.
In my estimation, part of the reason for this is that our culture’s high view and valuation of leadership has caused us to unhelpfully lump under the heading of leader nearly every positive quality that we can think of. Any ability that could contribute to achievement, any soft skill that will facilitate the fulfillment of goals has become listed as a characteristic of leadership. Leaders become our ideal human beings…or, ideal human beings become presented as quintessential leaders.
The result of this is that, in thinking about followership, there is either nothing positive left that we can say (which leads us to making statements about people being lemmings or sheep), or we repeat the same list and simply declare that followership is really a form of leadership and that all people are leaders.
Instead, lists like these point to a broader reality: a perspective on what it means to be a positive member of a group, an excellent contributor to an organizational endeavor. We have a good picture of what it takes to be successful–good communication, trust, goals, planning, decision-making, influence, etc.–but our leader-centric culture has moved us to placing all of these under a single heading, and under-appreciating the two-fold dynamic relationship of leader-follower.
We have formulated our view of effective teams by starting at the top, pouring in our preferred characteristics into the leader slot, and then not letting anything funnel down to describe what it means to follow well as a team member.
Instead, we need to shift our perspective and take more of a side-long view than a top-down one. We can begin by regarding teams as a relational dynamic surrounding a common purpose. Having identified the qualities and responsibilities that lead to the effective accomplishment of those aims, we should then determine which qualities are universally essential for every contributing member, which are specific to leaders, which are specific to followers, and which tasks should be handled by which roles.
Not only does this view strengthen our sense of unity–bound together around a common purpose–it also strengthens our sense of humanity: no longer is it only the select few that possess the full raft of admirable attributes. Instead, we can further describe our entire association as comprised of high quality people who communicate well, are trustworthy, take responsibility, have clear goals, make decisions, and influence others.
The door is opened for more of us to be ‘ideal human beings’ and effective contributors. Not only does this boost morale and buy-in, appreciating the unique and necessary involvement of each member, but this also builds up a bit of protection against some of the misconceptions that can creep in and derail group effectiveness: from deeming leaders as infallible, untouchable super-humans, to regarding followers as mindless zombies or masochistic lemmings.
Instead, acknowledging that–despite the reality that the details of our roles and responsibilities (and even our resources and the working-out of our influence) are different–we share much in common fundamentally as participants in our overarching aims and group identity creates connection where our common consideration of leadership and its attributes does little but lead to increased separation.
It’s great that we as a society have learned a lot about what it takes to work effectively in a group context. Now, we just need to take the step of opening the door to the possibility of contributing as an ‘ideal human being’ to all human beings–leaders and followers alike.
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